(5 June 2021)
Recognition of the right to a healthy environment key to address the environmental crisis and protect human rights
GENEVA (4 June 2020) – On the eve of World Environment Day, a group of more than fifty United Nations experts called on States to take urgent and timely action to recognize and implement the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a vital response to the current multi-faceted environmental crisis.
The world is currently facing a climate emergency, pervasive toxic pollution, dramatic loss of biodiversity, and a surge in emerging infectious diseases of zoonotic origin, such as COVID-19. The environmental crisis has negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, sanitation, food, decent work, development, education, peaceful assembly and cultural rights, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment.
The adverse effects have a disproportionate impact on women and girls and the rights of billions of people, especially those who are already vulnerable to environmental harm including people living in poverty, minorities, older persons, LGBT persons, racially and ethnically marginalized groups, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, persons with disabilities, migrants, internally displaced persons, and children.1
Peoples and communities historically subject to exploitation, including people of African descent, continue to bear the brunt of pollution, environmental degradation and climate change, including in some actions ostensibly intended to protect the environment. In addition, environmental human rights defenders have been facing a shocking rate of killings, threats, arbitrary arrests, harassment and intimidation as a direct result of their legitimate work on human rights and the environment.
Transformative actions are urgently required, not only to address the COVID-19 pandemic but to protect the environment and human rights, and to address the drivers of climate disruption, toxic pollution, biodiversity loss, and zoonotic diseases, including by requiring businesses to respect the rights of affected communities and the environment.
As human rights experts of the United Nations system, we call for human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, to be placed at the heart of the required transformations related decision-making processes. We need to address the root causes of inter-related environmental disasters and seize this opportunity to ‘build forward better’ in order to achieve a just and sustainable future and leave no one behind.
Applying a rights-based approach to the environmental crisis not only clarifies what is at stake; it catalyzes ambitious action, emphasizes prevention, focuses on the needs of those most affected and increases accountability. The rights-based approach would help address inequality and ensure protection for all members of society, with a particular emphasis on people in vulnerable situations.
One of the key elements of guaranteeing a human rights-based response is through global recognition and implementation of the right to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment. If such a right were to be respected, protected and fulfilled, it would provide an important safeguard for people and the planet.
Currently the right to a healthy environment has been legally recognised by 156 States (out of 193) in constitutions, legislation and regional treaties.2 However, the UN has not yet formally recognized this right.
The first step towards the recognition of the right to a healthy environment occurred almost 50 years ago, as UN member States met in Stockholm, Sweden, during the United Nations Conference on the Environment, and declared that: ‘Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.’3
Since then, UN member States have adopted a range of resolutions on the inter-linkages between the environment and the enjoyment of human rights. The Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on human rights and the environment in 2011, and appointed an independent expert (Professor John H. Knox) to articulate the links between human rights and the environment.4
Decades of experience have clarified that the right to a healthy environment includes clean air, safe and sufficient water, sanitation, healthy and sustainable food, a toxic-free environment, a safe climate and healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. It also includes the rights to environmental information, participation in decision-making and access to justice with effective remedies.
The core group on human rights and the environment (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland) declared in September 2020 their intention to put forward a resolution on the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the Human Rights Council.5 In a recent joint statement endorsed by 69 States during the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, the core group on human rights and the environment stated that: “It is our belief that a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of human rights. Therefore the possible recognition of the right at a global level would have numerous important implications on what we leave to our future generations.”
Further, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called for the promotion of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as he launched a Call to Action for Human Rights.6
The High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that: “It is time for global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment – recognition that can lead to stronger policies, at all levels, to protect our planet and our children. The right to a healthy environment is grounded in measures to ensure a safe and stable climate; a toxic-free environment; clean air and water; and safe and nutritious food. It encompasses the right to an education with respect for nature; to participation; to information; and to access to justice [...].”7
In a recent joint statement, 15 UN agencies stated that “ We have come together under the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, through the inspiration provided by the Council, and in response to the urgent call for action from all corners of the world to declare that the time for global recognition, implementation, and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is now.”8
More than 1,100 civil society, child, youth and indigenous peoples’ organizations have united to call upon Member States to recognize the right to a healthy environment as soon as possible.9
We, as human rights experts, urge States to take this opportunity in the face of the global environmental crisis to support the adoption of key UN resolutions recognizing that everyone has the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment both at the Human Rights Council and at the United Nations General Assembly.
Similar resolutions adopted by the UN in 2010 and in 2016 to recognize the rights to water and sanitation have served as a catalyst for constitutional recognition of these rights, stronger laws and increased resources to deliver these essential services. Recognition of the right to a healthy environment through UN resolutions is expected to produce similar benefits.
In a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year and threatens the health and dignity of billions of people, the UN can make a difference by recognizing that everyone, everywhere, has the right to live in a healthy environment. The time for the global recognition and action is now.
The following UN independent experts endorsed this statement:
Lead: David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment;
E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance;
Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development;
Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation;
Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea;
Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights;
Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education;
Elizabeth Broderick (Chair), Melissa Upreti (Vice Chair), Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls;
Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples;
Alice Cruz, Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members;
Dominique Day (Chairperson), Ahmed Reid, Michal Balcerzak, Sabelo Gumedze, Ricardo A. Sunga III, Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent;
Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights;
Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues;
Isha Dyfan, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia;
Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food;
Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants;
Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons;
Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders;
Yuefen Li, Independent expert on foreign debt and human rights;
Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967;
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity;
Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons;
Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children;
Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery;
Obiora Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity;
Marcos Orellana, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste;
Dante Pesce (Chairperson), Surya Deva (Vice-chairperson), Elżbieta Karska, Githu Muigai, Anita Ramasastry, Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises;
Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context;
Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran;
Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order;
Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;
Dubravka Šimonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences;
Leigh Toomey (Chair), Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair),
Mumba Malila, M. Miriam Estrada-Castillo and Priya Gopalan , Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions;
Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities;
Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
4/ See Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, A/HRC/37/59.
7/ During the 44th session of the Council in June/July 2020
8/ During the Human Rights Council, 46th Session in March 2021