Clean, healthy & sustainable environment is a universal human right now

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment by UN is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable

DW Photo
DW Photo

Mahendra Pandey

The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a universal human right. The resolution is being hailed as historic and a milestone step for global struggle for environmental protection.

The recognition of the right, by 161 countries that voted in favour of the resolution, to a healthy environment by UN bodies, although not legally binding, is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that the landmark resolution demonstrates that the Member States can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. “The resolution will help reduce environmental injustice, close protection gaps and empower people,” he said. He also said that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also hailed the Assembly’s decision. “Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now,” she said. Ms. Bachelet explained that environmental action based on human rights obligations provides vital guardrails for economic policies and business models.

The text, originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and now co-sponsored by over 100 countries, highlights that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements. It also recognises the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, pollution, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Mr. David Boyd, the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law. He said that with this people can demand their governments take action.

In 1972, the UN Conference on Environment in Stockholm was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns & declared that people have a fundamental right to "an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being". In October 2021, the Human Rights Council finally recognised this right and called for the UN General Assembly to do the same.

The need to resolve the triple planetary crisis that the UN chief talked about is real. The consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, through increased intensity and severity of droughts, water scarcity, wildfires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, with more than seven million people dying prematurely each year due to pollution. The decline or disappearance of biological diversity - which includes animals, plants and ecosystems - impacts food supplies, access to clean water and life as we know it, is also a major cause of concern.

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