UN recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – a new pathway for nature and people

Opi Outhwaite, Environmental Law Specialist at UNEP-WCMC, reflects on the realities and implications of the recent UN resolution on the right to a healthy environment 

This resolution is one of the most fundamental declarations to date of the relationship between people and nature. It recognises that clean and healthy ecosystems, biological diversity and a stable climate are fundamental to human life and dignity. International recognition at this level is expected to offer further protection to those communities that are considered vulnerable and to fill some of the current ‘protection gaps’ for people that are affected by environmental degradation. 

Embedding a healthy environment into a human rights framework 

Human rights law – in national and regional frameworks – operates on the basis that rights should be enjoyed by all individuals and that there should be mechanisms in place to enable rights holders (people) to hold authorities to account where they have failed to protect human rights, and to access grievance mechanisms (including through domestic courts) and remedies where their rights have been violated.  

Opportunities for individuals to defend their human rights – although not without problems – are often more developed than environmental laws. So, embedding the state of the environment into human rights provides more opportunities to further protect the environment and to strengthen accountability for environmental harm. 

What are the implications of this resolution? 

The Resolution provides a strong basis for environmental action. The introductory text to the resolution expressly recognises that  
 
“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 clean, healthy and sustainable environment…” 

This Resolution is expected to lead to significant developments – both binding and voluntary – to manifest the right to a healthy environment. The Resolution calls upon states, international organisations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders to take steps to scale-up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all. 

Over 100 countries already recognise the right to a healthy environment within their constitution or legal system. But the Resolution is expected to galvanise further legal measures by states to give effect to this right, as has been the case, for example, with the 2010 UN resolution recognising the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. Importantly, the Resolution on the right to a healthy environment affirms that promotion of the right to a healthy environment requires the full implementation of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). State action might include the further legal protection of nature, improved implementation and enforcement at the national level, and a reduction in obstacles to accessing courts and enforcing these environmental rights. For example, action at this level might include 

  • explicitly recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment within national laws or the constitution 
  • the adoption of new substantive environmental protection laws and policies relating to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, pollution and toxins, sustainable consumption and production, reduction of carbon emissions, or strengthening liability for environmental harm 
  • acting on states’ international commitments such as those on climate change 
  • implementing procedural measures such as improved access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and improving access to justice, for instance in the case of judicial review or other accountability mechanisms.  

More broadly, national policies (economic, social and environmental) should reflect respect for this right, as for other human rights. For citizens and environmental and human rights campaigners, recognition of the right by the UN General Assembly provides an influential tool that may be invoked when demanding action from governments or other actors and when bringing biodiversity and climate litigationii 

There are implications for the private sector too. For businesses, it is clear now that their recognised responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations must encompass respect for the right to a healthy environment. For example, businesses will need to identify, assess and mitigate any negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems as part of their human rights due diligence.  

For intergovernmental and international organisations the Resolution would be expected to influence policy development and to inform their strategies and operations. This might include, for example, support for capacity building, embedding the right within the development of international instruments and frameworks, and awareness raising about the right to a healthy environment in different settings for example, through public awareness campaigns and the provision of guidance for member states. 

What happens next? 

The language of the Resolution is broad and work lies ahead for all states in defining and understanding the scope of this right. Notwithstanding, implementation by stakeholders across governments, business and civil society must now begin to make the right to a healthy environment a reality for all people. While it will take time for the impact of the Resolution to trickle into changes in national law and practice across public and private sectors, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for urgent action to be taken to scale up its implementation, citing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and environmental degradation as the greatest threat to human rights. 

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