Historic! As UN declares healthy environment a human right

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UN General Assembly Meets on Peacebuilding and Human Rights. PHOTO/UN

By PATRICK MAYOYO

The United Nations General Assembly declared today that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment, an important step in countering the alarming decline of the natural world.

In a resolution passed Thursday morning at UN headquarters in New York City, the General Assembly said climate change and environmental degradation were some of the most pressing threats to humanity’s future. It called on states to step up efforts to ensure their people have access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

The resolution is not legally binding on the 193 UN Member States. But advocates are hopeful it will have a trickle-down effect, prompting countries to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in national legislations and regional treaties, and encouraging states to implement those laws.

Supporters of the decision of the UN General Assembly say that it would give environmental campaigners more ammunition to challenge ecologically destructive policies and projects.

“This resolution sends a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The resolution comes as the planet grapples with what Andersen called a triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Left unchecked, the new resolution said those problems could have disastrous consequences for people around the world, especially the poor, and women and girls.

The General Assembly resolution follows a flurry of similar legal reforms at the international and national levels. In April, the UN Human Rights Council declared access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment” a human right. 

Earlier this year, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean pledged more protections for so-called environmental defenders, including indigenous peoples campaigning against logging, mining and oil exploration in protected areas. In 2021, 227 environmental defenders were reportedly killed. And last year, New York state passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing citizens a right to a “healthful environment.”

Those changes come as environmental campaigners increasingly use the law to force countries to address pressing environmental problems like climate change.

In 2019, following a lawsuit by an environmental group, the Netherland’s top court ordered the Dutch Government to do more to cut carbon emissions, saying climate change was a direct threat to human rights.

More recently, Brazil’s supreme court declared the Paris climate change agreement a human rights treaty, saying the pact should supersede national law. Backers are hopeful the latest General Assembly resolution will eventually lead to more decisions like those.

Virtually all countries have national laws designed to limit pollution, protect plants and animals, and counter climate change. But those rules are not always fully implemented and when they are violated, citizens often struggle to hold governments and companies accountable.

At the national level, declaring a healthy environment a human right would allow people to challenge environmentally destructive policies under human rights legislation, which is well-defined in many countries.

“These resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful,” said David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the environmentbefore the vote.

In the days before the General Assembly resolution was passed, Andersen pointed to a similar decree from 2010 that recognized the right to sanitation and clean water. That, she said, spurred countries across the globe to add drinking water protections to their constitutions. She said the latest resolution has the same historic potential.

“The resolution will trigger environmental action and provide necessary safeguards to people all over the world,” said Andersen. “It will help people stand up for their right to breathe clean air, to access safe and sufficient water, healthy food, healthy ecosystems, and non-toxic environments to live, work, study, and play.”

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