Crossroads blog | 10 Dec, 2021

Towards universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment

This Human Rights Day we stand at a pivotal moment: the opportunity to recognise the right to a healthy environment as a universal human right, one that every person, everywhere is entitled to. Following widespread calls, reiterated at the IUCN Congress, the UN Human Rights Council voted resoundingly to recognise the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in October 2021.

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A farmer in Kerala, India surveys the rice field

Photo: nandhukumar

UN Member States should now support universal recognition of this right at the UN General Assembly, and reflect this right in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and other environmental policy; write Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International, and Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, both IUCN Member organisations.

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December: the day in 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a milestone document, which proclaims the inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled as a human being.  But it has an important gap, one that has become increasingly apparent; the fulfillment of human rights depends on a healthy environment. Since 1948, human development has become increasingly unsustainable. Despite growing awareness and global policy to drive sustainable development, environmental degradation continues largely unchecked with negative impacts on people, in particular the poorest and most vulnerable.

There was a huge groundswell of support for this right from government, business and civil society voiced across the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress.

International consensus has grown around the need for the UN to establish a new human right to a healthy environment. There was a huge groundswell of support for this right from government, business and civil society voiced in events across the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress, including from the UN Special Rapporteur on Environment and Human Rights, David Boyd, an invited plenary speaker. This was formalised in Motion 40 (now WCC-2020-Res-116) to Develop and implement a transformational and effective post-2020 global biodiversity framework, “NOTING the increasing calls to both recognise a right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in the UN Human Rights Council and to reflect this in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework,” and in the Marseille Manifesto which states: “The United Nations is requested to show leadership by recognising and implementing the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

Global recognition of the link between human well-being and a healthy environment marks a monumental milestone in efforts to deliver on the promises of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In a landmark decision, the resolution on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment proposed by five Human Rights Council Member States - Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland - was adopted on 8 October 2021 at the 48th UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva with overwhelming support (43 votes in favour, 4 abstentions, and none against). This global recognition of the link between human well-being and a healthy environment marks a monumental milestone in global efforts to deliver on the promises of the Sustainable Development Goals, and towards creating an equitable, carbon-neutral and nature-positive world for all. 

 

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UNFCCC COP26 Global Day of Action march on 6 November 2021, Glasgow, UK

Noëlle Kumpel, BirdLife International

Welcoming the resolution, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen, called it ‘‘a breakthrough moment for environmental justice.’’ The resolution was supported by more than 1,350 civil society organisations and Indigenous Peoples’ groups, 120,000 individual supporters of the BirdLife Partnership-led 1Planet1Right campaign, 15 UN agencies, business groups, more than 90,000 children, over 75 states as co-sponsors (bringing the total number of states voicing their support to 100), and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.

The support across the board at the 48th UN Human Rights Council, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, is a stark reflection that ‘‘we can neither achieve environmental action nor human rights protection in the absence of the other.’’

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1Planet1Right

The transformative power of global recognition

The right to a healthy environment encompasses: the rights to clean air, a safe climate, healthy and sustainably produced food, access to safe water and adequate sanitation, non-toxic environments in which to live, work and play, and healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. It is a right to be enjoyed by everyone everywhere and thus a means to put into practice the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development principle of ‘’leaving no one behind’’.  

Global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment helps ensure the conditions for continued sustainable development and prosperity. Further recognition of this right at the UNGA will reinforce the undertaking by global leaders to “protect the planet from degradation” as committed to in the preamble of the 2030 Agenda.

Over 80% of UN Member States (156 out of 193) in fact already recognise the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, environmental laws or regional treaties, which has led to improved conservation on the ground. A report on the human right to a healthy environment in South East Asia finds that the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) that recognise this right are in a better position to tackle environmental challenges. This is because such recognition is accompanied and reinforced by the development of legal, judicial and administrative measures for enforcement. For example, ASEAN countries that recognise this right have developed national climate institutions and action plans and set up specialist environment courts or green tribunals (for example in Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia). The Philippines has also set up an air quality management fund to finance clean-up of air pollution cases.

Where formal recognition of rights at global level has taken place, it has led to the amplification of national commitments. 

Where formal recognition of rights at global level has taken place it has led to the amplification of national commitments.  A good example is the formal UNGA recognition of the right to water and sanitation as a human right in July 2010, which spurred the inclusion of the right to water and sanitation in national constitutions, laws and policies and resulted in positive effects on global water governance and outcomes. Since the adoption of the resolution, countless people have gained access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In Mexico, the recognition of this right in the constitution following the UNGA resolution resulted in the extension of safe drinking water to over 1,000 rural communities. Global recognition spurred similar progress in Slovenia, which also incorporated the right to water in its constitution and then took action to bring safe drinking water to Roma communities living in informal settlements on city outskirts. The recognition of the same right in Costa Rica was a catalyst for the development of stronger laws, regulations and policies to tackle water pollution, such as a law prohibiting open-pit mining, as well as court decisions requiring public and private actors to take actions to prevent violations of this right.

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Okavango Delta, Botswana

LionMountain

The global recognition of the right to a healthy environment would position this right high in the global and national political agendas. This would enhance accountability of states towards citizens by enforcing human rights standards in relation to the right to a healthy environment and by guarding against violation of this right by third parties. Consequently, global recognition of this right is likely to enhance the responsibilities of businesses in relation to the environment.

We urge other IUCN Members to join us in supporting and mobilising the support needed to ensure smooth passage of this resolution at the UN General Assembly.

Securing the future for people and planet

We urge other IUCN Members to join us in supporting and mobilising the support needed to ensure smooth passage of this resolution at UNGA early next year, to provide a strengthened basis for all current and future generations to enjoy the basic right to a healthy planet.

We call upon all UN Member States to show their unequivocal support in championing the right to a healthy environment for all, and we also encourage other IUCN non-state Members and individual Commission members to sign both the joint CSO letter and 1Planet1Right petition.

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