For the first time ever, a resolution recognizing humans’ fundamental right of access to a "safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment" was supported by the UN Human Rights Council, on Friday, October 8, 2021, at the end of the 48th session.
A new resolution recognizing the fundamental right to "safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment" was proposed by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, and Slovenia. Voting resulted in 43 votes in favor and four abstentions by Russia, India, China and Japan.
Ironically, the United States and United Kingdom, who made bold environmental pledges at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), were the biggest critiques of the proposal. The US did not get to vote, since the former President Donald Trump withdrew from the body in 2018. President Biden mentioned in his UNGA speech that next year Washington will restore its membership at the UN Human Rights Council. Similarly, the UK was the other opposer of the resolution, but possibly after recalling the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech at UNGA on COP26 and “growing up,” gave a favorable vote.
As UNEP reports, “Costa Rica's Ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar said the Council’s decision would ‘send a powerful message to communities around the world struggling with climate hardship that they are not alone,’ while the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) said its passage marked a new era in rights-based climate policy.”
According to the new resolution, "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, the resulting loss of biodiversity and the decline in services provided by ecosystems interfere with the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights”.
This resolution centralizes “those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm” and to encourages states to “[exchange] knowledge and ideas, [build] synergies between the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment, [bear] in mind an integrated and multisectoral approach and considering that efforts to protect the environment must fully respect other human rights obligations, including those related to gender equality.”
The decision also urges the state leaders to “continue to take into account human rights obligations and commitments” as well as "adopt policies for the enjoyment of the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as appropriate, including with respect to biodiversity and ecosystems." Another resolution A/HRC/48/L.27, led by the Marshall Islands, was proposed to create a new “Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights in the context of climate change,” for a period of three-years. That decision passed 42-1, where Russia was against, and China, Eritrea, India, and Japan abstained. After the UN Human Rights Council’s landmark decision, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said:
“Having long called for such a step, I am gratified that the Council’s action today clearly recognizes environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises...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.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet UN Human Rights Council Twitter
“The resolution on a healthy environment 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 Human Rights Council also called on the UN General Assembly to continue discussing this decision further.
We have a right to clean water, but the source of our water does not have a right to be clean (i.e., the river). The recognition of a human right to a "safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment" is fundamental, but not enough; we must celebrate this achievement and try to make it stronger, but also move towards acknowledging that human rights cannot be protected and realized without recognizing Rights of Nature and/or Rights of Mother Earth.
While the resolution is not legally binding, many environmental activists, grassroots movements, Indigenous Peoples, and academics are celebrating this milestone decision. For environmental lawyers (many of them have been working on the recognition of this right for a long time), the resolution will allow having more and stronger arguments in legal cases dealing with the climate crisis, the protection of the natural environment, as well as human health.
United Nations Human Rights Council. "Human Rights Council adopts four resolutions on the right to development, human rights and indigenous peoples, the human rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people, and the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment." October, 2021.
OHCHR. "Human Rights Council appoints a Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights in the context of climate change and a Special Rapporteur to monitor the situation of human rights in Burundi." October, 2021.