UN: right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment recognised
The United Nations General Assembly recently passed a landmark resolution recognising access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right. This important step forward in combating the connected and urgent threats of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss came following years of civil society campaigning. While the resolution is non-binding, it should give stimulus to efforts to push for stronger environmental regulation at the national level and hold governments and businesses to account, including through litigation. Civil society will also work to build on this by advocating for a binding convention on the right to a healthy environment.
What could be a decisive step forward in environmental rights recently came in the halls of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). On 28 July, UN member states passed a ground-breaking resolution recognising access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right.
Remarkably, no states voted against, while 161 voted in favour. Only eight states, all with dismal rights records – Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Syria – abstained.
The resolution comes at a critical time, in the midst of what’s been called a triple planetary crisis, with the combined threat of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.
The impacts of climate change, including in the form of far more frequent extreme weather, are increasingly obvious. The possibility of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels to avoid catastrophe is fast diminishing. Meanwhile air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, responsible for more than nine million deaths a year. At the same time, the loss of biological diversity is directly impacting on food supplies, access to clean water and sustainable life on earth. These connected parts of the global emergency need to be addressed simultaneously and urgently.
In this context the UNGA resolution can only be seen a welcome development that can help build momentum for change. Now the need is to make it count by ensuring its words are followed by action. Civil society, which long mobilised internationally to push for the resolution, will keep up the pressure at every level to make it happen.
A potential gamechanger
The latest resolution uses language reminiscent of that in a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2021, the first time a UN entity recognised access to a healthy environmental as a right. It draws a connection to other rights established in international law and recognises the negative impact environmental damage has on people and their ability to access their rights.
The resolution highlights climate change, extraction, pollution, biodiversity loss and poor waste management as major threats to the enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment. It puts forward multilateral cooperation as a key part of the solution.
UNGA resolutions aren’t legally binding, but they can have a powerful symbolic effect, as indicated earlier this year when a special session of the UNGA was called to pass resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. It was a way of communicating strong disapproval in the face of the impossibility of having a binding resolution passed by the UN Security Council, in which Russia enjoys veto power.
The UNGA resolution on the right to a clean and healthy environment sends the message that UN member states appreciate the importance of the environment and understand the need for better norms and practices to improve people’s lives. The hope is that this new, high-level acknowledgment will help catalyse greater pressure for change. It offers a powerful additional tool civil society will use to push for the development of binding international agreements, advocate for global standards to be domesticated into national-level laws and actionable policies, and hold governments and businesses to account, including through environmental litigation.
After civil and political rights, and economic and social rights, it is time to enshrine our environmental rights.
Other resolutions on environmental issues have had more than symbolic effects: a UNGA resolution adopted on the human right to water and sanitation in 2010 led to constitutional and legal changes in countries including Costa Rica, Mexico and Slovenia, bringing immediate impacts for communities denied access to clean water.
Five decades to victory
For civil society, this is just the next phase in a five-decade-long journey. The first step came at the UN Conference on the Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, which issued a declaration recognising the right to ‘an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.’ This was the first international document connecting environmental health with people’s wellbeing, marking a change in the way environmental concerns were understood.
📢 BREAKING!— Center for International Environmental Law (@ciel_tweets) July 28, 2022
In a historic decision, the @UN General Assembly just adopted the resolution to universally recognize the right to a #HealthyEnvironmentForAll!
This signals what we hope will be the beginning of a new era in rights-based environmental policy.
A thread 🧵👇 pic.twitter.com/PjGrUHjty8
Years followed in which civil society promoted the idea that everyone should have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, popularising the concept and seeking to win wider recognition. A 2018 joint report by the former and current UN Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights and the Environment made a strong case for the UN to recognise the right to a healthy environment. A first breakthrough came in the form of the UNHRC’s October 2021 resolution, which recognised access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right.
After Stockholm +50 – the conference held in Sweden this June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm meeting – success drew closer. In Stockholm, UN member states and stakeholders issued a call to implement 10 actionable recommendations ‘for accelerating action towards a healthy planet for the prosperity of all’. One month later, UNGA passed its historic resolution.
Some 1,350 civil society organisations backed the campaign to get the resolution passed. In the run-up to the resolution, civil society groups worked for months to connect with governments to urge them to vote for it, and led a social media campaign to call on world leaders to act. The #HealthyEnvironmentForAll hashtag gathered over 30,300 messages of support.
Inside the UN, civil society organisations worked with a core group of supportive states, among them small island states heavily impacted on by climate change, to ensure a strong text that broadly reflected civil society’s hopes and expectations.
Voices from the frontline
Victoria Lichet is executive director of the Global Pact Coalition. The Global Pact Coalition brings together civil society organisations, activists, artists, lawyers and scientists advocating for the adoption of the Global Pact for the Environment, a draft international treaty to enshrine a new generation of fundamental rights and duties related to the protection of the environment, and particularly the right to a healthy environment.
The recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right makes environmental protection a core aspect of human rights protection. It is a major step towards a human rights-based approach in environmental litigation, as it integrates human rights norms into environmental matters.
While UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, this resolution is a strong political and symbolic message. It will play a role in shaping and strengthening new and stronger international environmental norms, laws, standards and policies. As such, it will necessarily improve the overall effectiveness of environmental law and catalyse further environmental and climate action. This also proves that multilateralism still has a role to play in international environmental law.
Recognition should be combined with strong and ambitious national and regional public policies that implement mechanisms to strengthen environmental protections, the protection of people’s health and the enjoyment of their other human rights. From now on, states should adopt a human rights-based approach in environmental regulation as well as better renewable energy and circular economy policies.
Civil society should now advocate for stronger and more ambitious instruments to protect the environment, our right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. Now that the right to a healthy environment has been recognised at the international level, we should introduce additional progressive rights and duties that will take us even further in environmental protection.
The UNGA resolution could be the foundation for a more comprehensive international instrument on the right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. We already have ambitious models that could be used in these future negotiations, including the Global Pact for the Environment and the draft covenant of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest global environmental network.
The path from ‘soft law’ to ‘hard law’ – in this case, from the non-binding UNGA resolution to a convention on the right to a healthy environment – is a very common one in international law. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is one part of the UNGA resolution on the International Bill of Human Rights, and therefore not legally binding, resulted in two treaties adopted in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It took 18 years to incorporate the Declaration into two legally binding texts.
We hope it will not take 18 years to achieve a convention on environmental rights, because that would bring us to 2040. We do not have that kind of time. The time has come to adopt such a convention, a ‘third pact’ recognising a third generation of human rights. After civil and political rights, and economic and social rights, it is time to enshrine our environmental rights.
As we face a triple planetary crisis, a binding international environmental text is critically important because millions of people are already dying from toxic environments, particularly from air pollution.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Victoria. Read the full interview here.
More action needed
As well as its non-binding nature, a further potential challenge with the UNGA resolution is that it isn’t specific about the scope of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Ambiguity could pave the way for varying interpretations. Several states have already expressed doubts about its applicability and legal relevance, suggesting some will use it for self-promotion purposes rather than as a stimulus for tangible action. It’s up to civil society to advocate for the broadest and most ambitious interpretation and raise awareness so pressure builds on states to respect and enforce the right they have recognised.
Civil society is also striving to use the non-binding resolution as a stepping stone to something stronger: a binding convention on environmental rights.
Such a convention would enable civil society to hold states to account on their environmental performance. Environmental litigation would be further enabled: already the Paris Agreement, a legally binding convention almost every state has signed up to, has been cited in several successful pieces of climate litigation.
The connected threats of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss haven’t become any less urgent now a resolution has been passed. This is but one step, albeit a significant one. In some ways, for civil society it’s now the real work begins.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States should incorporate the resolution’s provisions into domestic law.
States and businesses should take stronger action to protect the environment through improving regulations, demanding better business practices and encouraging behaviour change.
Civil society and environmental campaigners should reference the new recognition of environmental rights in their campaigns and legal challenges.
Cover photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images