Chana residents had rallied in front of Government House for almost a week in mid-December 2020, renewing their calls for the scarp of the project. Credit: SaveChana FB Page

Clean and healthy environment a universal human right: UN

The decision will help countries accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments, the UN chief said

The UN General Assembly has recently adopted the so-called historic resolution, declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a universal human right. 

With 161 votes in favour and eight abstentions (China, Russian Federation, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia), the Assembly on July 28 called on the states to step up efforts to ensure their people have access to a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”, saying climate change and environmental degradation were some of the most pressing threats to humanity’s future. 

According to UNEP, the resolution is not legally binding. But advocates are said to be hopeful that it will have a trickle-down effect, prompting countries to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in their national constitutions and regional treaties, and encouraging them to implement those laws. In addition, it could also give environmental campaigners more ammunition to challenge ecologically destructive policies and projects, the UN environmental agency noted.

“This resolution sends a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us_at least, not without a fight,” said Ms. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The resolution text, originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and co-sponsored by over 100 countries, notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements. 

It also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right, and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights. 

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd told UN News that the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law. 

“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from “begging” to “demanding” governments to act”, he said. 

Momentum picking

The resolution comes after the adoption of a similar text by the Human Rights Council last year. 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also hailed the Assembly’s decision in a statement and echoed the UN chief’s call for urgent action to implement it. Ms. Bachelet said environmental action based on human rights obligations provides vital guardrails for economic policies and business models. 

It emphasizes the underpinning of legal obligations to act, rather than simply of discretionary policy.  It is also more effective, legitimate and sustainable, she said. 

“Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear; States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now,” she remarked. 

According to UNEP, the resolution also comes in times when several parts of the world has been going through similar legal reforms. While the UN Human Rights Council declared access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment” a human right in April, earlier this year countries in Latin America and the Caribbean pledged more protections for so-called environmental defenders, including indigenous peoples campaigning against logging, mining and oil exploration in protected areas.  

In 2019, following a lawsuit by an environmental group, the Netherlands’ top court ordered the Dutch Government to do more to cut carbon emissions, saying climate change was a direct threat to human rights. More recently, Brazil’s supreme court declared the Paris climate change agreement a human rights treaty, saying the pact should supersede national law.  

Virtually all countries have national laws designed to limit pollution, protect plants and animals, and counter climate change. But those rules are not always fully implemented and when they are violated, citizens often struggle to hold governments and companies accountable, remarked UNEP. 

At the national level, declaring a healthy environment a human right would allow people to challenge environmentally destructive policies under human rights legislation, which is well-defined in many countries, it noted. 

“These resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful,” Mr. Boyd was quoted as saying before the vote.

The UNEP chief herself also pointed to a similar decree from 2010 that recognized the right to sanitation and clean water. That, she said, spurred countries across the globe to add drinking water protections to their constitutions. 

The latest resolution, she said, has the same historic potential. 

“The resolution will trigger environmental action and provide necessary safeguards to people all over the world. It will help people stand up for their right to breathe clean air, to access safe and sufficient water, healthy food, healthy ecosystems, and non-toxic environments to live, work, study, and play,” said Ms. Andersen. 

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, meanwhile, welcomed this historic decision, saying the landmark development demonstrates that the UN member states can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. 

“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples”, he said in a statement released by his Spokesperson’s Office. 

He added that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments. 

“The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all”, he said. 

He, however, underscored that the adoption of the resolution is “only the beginning” and urged nations to make this newly recognised right “a reality for everyone, everywhere”. 

Five decades in the making (Source: UN News)

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with its own historic declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and the ocean, and the well-being of people around the world. 

UN member states back then, declared that people have a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” calling for concrete action and the recognition of this right. 

Last October, after decades of work by nations at the front lines of climate change, such as the Maldives archipelago, as well as more than 1,000 civil society organisations, the Human Rights Council finally recognised this right and called for the UN General Assembly to do the same. 

“From a foothold in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the right has been integrated into constitutions, national laws and regional agreements. Today’s decision elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition”, Ms. Andersen, remarked in her statement upon the adoption of the resolution.

Sources: UN, UNEP, UN News

Also read: Historic UN resolution recognizes healthy environment is a human right