Climate Community Development

UN Human Rights Council declares a healthy environment a human right

A healthy environment

With one accord in a landmark historical moment, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) on Friday declared that access to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment is a universal human right and stated that it can also positively contribute to a global fight against climate change and its disastrous impacts.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), 24% of all global deaths, roughly 13.7 million deaths a year, are linked to the environment, due to risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure.

Calling the decision a historic breakthrough, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd said this has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year.

The Council has called on States around the world to work together, and with other partners, to implement this newly recognised right in line with resolution 48/13.

The text, proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions – from Russia, India, China, and Japan.

At the same time, through a second resolution (48/14), the Council also increased its focus on the human rights impacts of climate change by establishing a Special Rapporteur dedicated specifically to that issue.

In a statement, UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet applauded landmark recognition by the UN Human Rights Council that having a healthy environment is a human right and urged the Member States to embrace the decision and make sure that practical action is taken to ensure a healthy environment for all.

“It is imperative for the Member States to take bold actions to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment. 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,” she said.

Ms. Bachelet said that having long called for such a step, she was gratified that the decision clearly recognises environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.

At the beginning of the current session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner described the triple planetary threats of climate change, pollution, and nature loss as the single greatest human rights challenge of our era.

The new resolution acknowledges the damage inflicted by climate change and environmental destruction on millions of people across the world. It also underlines that the most vulnerable segments of the population are more acutely impacted.

The decision which comes weeks before the crucial UN climate change summit, COP26, happening in early November in Glasgow will now go to the UN General Assembly in New York, for further consideration.

Following the passage of the resolution, Michelle Bachelet paid tribute to the efforts of a diverse array of civil society organisations, including youth groups, national human rights institutions, indigenous peoples’ organizations, businesses, and many others.

The High Commissioner also noted that an unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders were reported killed last year, urging the Member States to take firm measures to protect and empower them.

“We must build on this momentum to move beyond the false separation of environmental action and protection of human rights. It is all too clear that neither goal can be achieved without the other”, she said.

The success development is also the result of more than a year of advocacy from the #1Planet1Right campaign, launched and led by the BirdLife Partnership.

BirdLife International highlighted that back in early 2020, with COVID-19 rampaging around the globe, BirdLife CEO Patricia Zurita spoke with Asuncion Ruiz, head of our Spanish Partner SEO/BirdLife, about upping the BirdLife family’s public advocacy for a healthy planet.

Knowing that the destruction of nature is often the root cause of zoonotic pandemics, they enlisted the power of the BirdLife Partnership in launching the #1Planet1Right campaign, calling for the right for a healthy environment to be enshrined in law.

“With catchy graphics, a simple petition, no budget, and a great, toe-tapping anthem, the campaign brought the idea of the right to a healthy planet to the public’s imagination, boosted behind the scenes by the expert lobbying of the BirdLife policy team. Over 120,000 signatures later, with the endorsement of hundreds of organisations and prestigious figures including Greta Thunberg and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, this afternoon history was made.

“The original Declaration of Human Rights was forged from the ashes of humanity’s last global crisis, World War II. If this right goes ahead, it will become the first new human right to be introduced in more than 70 years, allowing us to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a similarly symbolic and decisive political change,” said BirdLife.

Recently, Amnesty International also called upon UN Human Rights Council to recognize a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a universal human right.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General said, “With millions experiencing hunger and displacement due to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, it is clearer than ever that human life and dignity depend on a healthy environment. It’s easy to take our planet for granted until we see the human cost of its degradation.”

The 48th regular session of the Human Rights Council, it has been highlighted, began last month in Geneva with Amnesty International joining more than 1,100 civil society and Indigenous peoples’ groups in calling on member states to adopt a resolution to formally recognize the right to a healthy environment.

“The dramatic impacts of climate change have exposed, with devastating clarity, how integral a healthy environment is to the enjoyment of all our other rights. It’s easy to take our planet for granted until we see the human cost of its degradation: hunger, displacement, unemployment, homelessness, illness, and deaths,” added Callamard.

She once pointed out that Governments’ failure to act on climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence may well be the biggest inter-generational human rights violation in history.

“As the primary global human rights body, the HRC must use all the tools at its disposal to counter the crisis. We call on all states to support recognition of the right to a healthy environment, at the UN and at the national level. Those who do not will be on the wrong side of history and standing against the common future of humanity.”

Research demonstrates that state-level recognition of the right to a healthy environment contributes to improved environmental outcomes, including cleaner air, enhanced access to safe drinking water, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions empowering communities to defend their rights in the face of adverse environmental impacts linked to state and corporate responsibility.

“As the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has pointed out, when the UN adopted resolutions recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation in 2010, it spurred many states to include these rights in their national legislation. It also mobilized billions of dollars in increased investment in water infrastructure, dramatically improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” Callamard further underscored.

She added that recognizing the right to a healthy environment could spur similar transformative change in state approaches to climate change.

“We call on all HRC member states to seize this opportunity to scale up the HRC’s work on the climate crisis-one of the most daunting and urgent human rights challenges in history.”

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende