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The right to a healthy environment

  • 21 October 2021
On 8 October, at its 48th session, the United Nations Human Rights Council formally adopted a resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Through this resolution, the Human Rights Council acknowledges that damage to the environment negatively affects all human rights, that the consequences of this damage ‘are felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations’, and that procedural justice (such as community participation in environmental decision-making and access to government information) is fundamental to the realisation of this right. Finally, it also emphasises that ‘environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy human rights, including the right to life’.

This formal recognition of the right to a healthy environment has been a long time coming. The global community first recognised this right in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, with a declaration that the environment is essential to human ‘well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights — even the right to life itself’.  Since then, over 150 States have recognized the right through their domestic law or regional agreements.

As the former Special Rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment, John Knox, argued in 2019: ‘The right could thus be said to have achieved near­global support even in the absence of a global instrument explicitly recognizing it, although the remaining hold­outs include some powerful, populous countries, notably China, Japan and the United States, as well as Australia and Canada.’ (More on that in a moment.)

Now that it has been formally recognised by the Human Rights Council, the next step for the international community, as recommended by the Special Rapporteur, is to adopt a new international treaty, a new optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and/or a General Assembly resolution on the right to a healthy environment (as occurred in relation to the human right to water in 2010). For now, the Human Rights Council has called for the United Nations General Assembly to consider the matter.

At the same 48th session, the Human Rights Council also adopted a separate resolution to appoint a new Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. As the world looks towards the United Nations