Healthy Environment a Human Right, UN Declares

A healthy environment is a human right and vital to the enjoyment of other rights, according to a new UN General Assembly resolution. Find out why this is both a cause for celebration and a call to action.

For a while now, I’ve been volunteering with Amnesty International. They’re a human rights agency founded by a British lawyer named Peter Benenson in 1960.

Today, Amnesty has more than ten million members worldwide. It draws attention to specific human rights abuses and campaigns for compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international laws and standards.

My job as an urgent action volunteer is to write letters to world leaders on behalf of people whose rights have been abused. I’m a small part of a broader category of activists called human rights defenders.

Definition of Human Rights Keeps Broadening Under UN

Most of the cases I deal with involve things like fair trials, arbitrary arrests or freedom of speech. However, over the years, the definition of human rights keeps broadening under the leadership of the United Nations, which enacted the orginal Universal Declaration.

The UN General Assembly made history this week, even if it didn’t get much immediate attention in the news. It declared, with 161 votes in favour and eight abstentions, that access to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right. Nobody voted against it.

According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres, “The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples.”

“Resolution Will Help Reduce Environmental Injustices”

The purpose of this resolution is to encourage governments to get moving on putting both their environmental and human rights responsiblities into place. As Guterres put it, “The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all.”

The resolution “Recognizes the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights.” It also, “Notes that the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is related to other rights that are in accordance with existing international law.”

The General Assembly’s declaration goes on to encourage its member states to build the capacity to create a healthy environment. It also reminds governments of their obligations and commitments to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Costa Rica Introduced the Resolution’s Text

Costa Rica introduced the resolution’s text. It’s a remarkable small nation that sets an example for the world in a number progressive ways. So, I wasn’t surprised to see their name on it.

Both China and Russia abstained from voting on the resolution. Predictably, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Iran and Ethiopia followed Russia’s lead while Cambodia sided with China. The good news for environmentalists is that nobody voted against it.

Not everyone was thrilled with the way the debate went. For example, the United Kingdom felt the resolution should have ackowledged human rights defenders who also work to protect a healthy environment. New Zealand would have liked more time to discuss the implications of the resolution with the indigenous Maori population.

Calls on Governments and Business to Improve Efforts

The General Assembly based the resolution on a similar text that the Human Rights Council adopted last year. It calls on both governments and businesses to improve their efforts to protect the environment.

Our environment faces three main threats caused by human activity. These are climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people,” Secretary General Guterres said in a statement, “especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples.”

Resolution Is “Only the Beginning”

The UN chief also emphasized that this resolution is “only the beginning” and that nations will have to take concrete action to make the newly recongized human right, “a reality for everyone, everywhere.” Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s Human Rights chief, agreed.

“Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough,” Ms. Bachelet explained. “The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it.”

Ms. Bachelet emphasized the urgency of both environmental and human rights issues saying, “We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now.” 

Environmental Damage – Ramifications for Human Rights

One of the resolution’s key points is that environmental damage has direct and indirect ramifications for individuals’ human rights. David Boyd is the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

He explained the relationship between a healthy environment and human rights this way. “Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act.”

Although this is a breakthrough for environmentalists and for human rights defenders, it’s hardly a new idea. The concept of environmental rights dates back to at least 1972.

Concept of Environmental Rights Dates Back to 1972

At the UN Conference of the Environment in Stockholm that year, delegates recognized a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.” They went on to say that making these rights a reality requires concrete action. This sounds awfully familiar.

The frustation people feel when it comes to environmental justice is that actions speak louder than words. For fifty years now, diplomats have told us we have a right to a healthy environment and that it’s high time government and business leaders got busy to defend that right.

Yet, we’ve seen nothing but symbolic actions. In fact, that includes this new resolution because it’s not legally binding. No country has any legal obligation to comply with it, whether they stood up and voted for it or abstained from voting.

New Resolution Is Not Legally Binding

Over those same five decades (the first Earth Day was in 1970) there’s been a growing realization that humanity is a part of nature and not its master. We need to understand that we’re a single strand in an interrelated web of life and that our planet is not an infinite stockpile of resources for us to exploit.

Despite this raised awareness, wildlife populations have declined by almost 70%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Carbon emissions causing climate change continue unabated. The volume of waste each of us produces is up by about 40% over the same period.

Similarly, in terms of human rights, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch declared in its 2022 World Report that “leaders are often too mired in partisan battles and short-term preoccupations to address these problems effectively.”

“Build on this victory and Implement the Right”

Mr. Roth went on to call for democratic leaders to “do more than spotlight the autocrats’ inevitable shortcomings. They need to make a stronger, positive case for democratic rule. That means doing a better job of meeting national and global challenges—of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.”

We need more than embellished rhetoric on both the healthy environmental and human rights fronts. Humanity is demanding decisive and concrete actions.

“The recognition of this right is a victory we should celebrate,” said UN Environment chief Inger Andersen. “But now we must build on this victory and implement the right”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right
The human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment
With Autocrats on the Defensive, Can Democrats Rise to the Occasion?
Environmental Human Rights Defenders
UN Human Rights Council Condemns Fake News and Hate Speech
Human Rights Call to Action from UN Chief

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