The United Nations Human Rights Council confirms the human right to a healthy environment in a landmark declaration. How did this newly observed right come into recognition? And what does it mean for member states and global citizens?
In October 2021, the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the United Nations adopted two resolutions related to human rights and climate change. The first recognizes the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment while the second is a resolution that addresses the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. According to a statement by Mazhat Shameen Khan, President of the HRC, these resolutions are the “culmination of years of work.”
The Right to a Healthy Environment: From Idea to Implementation
Founded in 1945, the United Nations (UN) was established with a mandate to secure the rights that lead to a peaceful, prosperous, and healthy world for all. Despite that mandate, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost a quarter (24%) of all deaths around the world—approximately 13.7 million deaths a year—are linked to environmental factors, such as air pollution and exposure to chemicals.
Conscious actions that led the UN to acknowledge and deem a healthy environment to be a human right included dedicated efforts by member states and civil society organizations, youth groups, national human rights institutions, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and businesses. Therefore, following the UN HRC’s recent declaration of the human right to a healthy environment, member states and individuals around the world want to know what we can expect from this milestone declaration.
“Recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is about protecting people and the planet—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.” —Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Tabled by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland, the resolution was passed by 43 votes in favor, with four abstentions from Russia, India, China, and Japan.
“The recognition that having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right is a vital step towards addressing the climate crisis and achieving environmental justice, and, thus, improving people’s lives,” detailed a spokesperson from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking to The Earth & I.
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in her speech welcoming the adoptions: “…recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is about protecting people and the planet—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.”
A second UN resolution set out the Council’s commitment to the importance of understanding the relationship between climate change and human rights by creating a Special Rapporteur to specifically focus on the global issue. The core group behind the resolution creating the new Special Rapporteur consists of the Bahamas, the European Union, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Panama, Paraguay, and Sudan.
The adoption of these two resolutions contributes to raising awareness of environmental protection as a requirement by human rights norms. It also highlights the importance of environmental protection for human dignity, equality, and freedom. Following the adoption of the two resolutions, the HRC says that the issue will now go to the UN General Assembly in New York, USA, for consideration by all member states.
The UN’s COP26: How Adequate Were Its Commitments?
The recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which took place from October 31 to November 12, 2021, saw global leaders come to Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss the importance of collaboration to tackle climate change as the world strives to move ahead with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
One of the main results of the conference was the creation of the Glasgow Climate Pact. The global sustainability event’s final outcome document purposefully asks 197 countries to report their progress towards their climate ambitions next year at COP27 which will take place in Egypt. Along with short-term plans, the Pact also confirms global goals to progress climate action throughout the decade, to 2030.
For the first time, negotiators explicitly discussed shifting away from coal and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, although, in a last-minute announcement made by China and India, wording that was previously cited in an earlier draft of the agreement as “the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels” was softened and revised to “phase down” coal use.
“As we emerge from COP26, this action sends a resounding message to world leaders that human rights must be placed at the center of climate action as they follow up to their commitments to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change,” —OHCHR spokesperson
COP26 President Alok Sharma shared his apologies for “the way the process has unfolded.” He also expressed that he understood some delegations would be “deeply disappointed” that more definite language had not been written into the final agreement.
On the final day, following an extension of the COP26 climate negotiations by an additional day, the UN chief emphasized that it was time to go into “emergency mode.” To succeed in providing $100 billion in finance dedicated to climate action, the UN chief confirmed these commitments require the world to put an end to fossil fuel subsidies, phase out the use of coal, place an economic value on carbon, and safeguard vulnerable communities. In addition, Sharma stated that while the global organization did not achieve its goals at the conference, it has made some building blocks for progress.
“As we emerge from COP26, this action sends a resounding message to world leaders that human rights must be placed at the center of climate action as they follow up to their commitments to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change,” says OHCHR’s spokesperson.
Standards to Follow to Achieve a Healthy Environment
In speaking with The Earth & I on the need for greater recognition of all individuals’ needs for a healthy environment, the OHCHR’s spokesperson focused on disproportionately impacted populations and the difficulties those communities have experienced in protecting their rights:
“Now is the time for States to beef up their commitment to urgently address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and nature loss which disproportionately impacts the rights of persons and groups in vulnerable situations—those who historically have contributed the least to its creation. The inclusion of affected communities and people in climate action is of paramount importance.” A people-centered approach is key to human rights-based environmental action and entails that the rights to participation, access to information and access to justice are fully respected and protected. With an unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders killed last year, there is an urgent need for firm measures by States to protect and empower them.”
The HRC has striven to bring awareness to the connection between human rights and climate change through providing ongoing and specific clarifications of the ways climate change affects human rights. These efforts include the development and implementation of a series of resolutions concerning climate change and human rights.
The OHCHR explains that through the adoption of this landmark resolution, states are encouraged:
To develop capacities for proactive initiatives to protect the environment to fulfill their human rights obligations and commitments, and to enhance cooperation with multiple actors in that concern, including with other States, UN bodies and civil society;
To continue to share good practices;
To implement policies for the enjoyment of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as appropriate, including those that relate to biodiversity and ecosystems;
To maintain the consideration of human rights obligations and commitments relating to the enjoyment of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in the implementation of and follow-up to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Legislating the Right to a Healthy Environment
Before agreeing on implementing the resolution, more than 80% (or over 150) of UN member states already recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment through their constitutions, legislation, or ratification of regional human rights treaties.
According to the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, constitutional recognition of the right to a healthy environment “raised the profile and importance of environmental protection and provided a basis for the enactment of stronger environmental laws.”
“When applied by the judiciary, it has helped to provide a safety net to protect against gaps in statutory laws and created opportunities for better access to justice,” the Special Rapporteur concluded.
Beyond the UN Declaration
A number of other significant developments have emerged this year in addition to the UN’s formal recognition that a healthy environment is a human right. In April 2021, for example, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement, came into force. The agreement places the onus on states to commit to protecting environmental human rights defenders and the right to a healthy environment.
The Meeting of the Parties also adopted a rapid response mechanism for the protection of environmental defenders to the Aarhus Convention in October 2021. Commenting on what this means for people’s access to a healthy environment, the OHCHR spokesperson explained that It marks “an important step for the advancement of environmental democracy and helps to uphold the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”
In 2021, the Special Rapporteur submitted two reports to the UNHRC and the UN General Assembly on good practices related to reducing the environmental impacts of food systems on human rights and the effects of the global water crisis on human rights.
“Bold action is now required to ensure this resolution on the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social and environmental policies that will protect people and nature,” Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged in a statement.
In September 2021, a common agenda was produced, containing twelve commitments that “outline an effort of solidarity and long-term thinking that fulfils our principles and can rebuild people's trust in the future.” The agenda and its commitments “hold out hope for a world that, instead of lurching from crisis to calamity, manages to navigate and resolve threats with the guidance of principle and the exercise of foresight and solidarity.” With an unequivocal sense of urgency, in a statement, Bachelet emphasized: “The choice is ours.”
*Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past 10 years, Natasha has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives. Natasha has also been interviewed herself as an insights provider for research institutes and conferences.