Environment and Human Rights
On 8th October 2021, the Human Rights Council – the top UN human rights body – formally recognised the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This is a major achievement for environmental and human rights advocates. The concept of a ‘human right to a healthy environment’ was first outlined in the Draft Declaration of Principles of Human Rights and the Environment, submitted to the UN by Special Rapporteur Fatma Zohra Ksentini in 1994. Since then, NGOs have been advocating that the right to a healthy environment be recognised as a human right – both in international law and in domestic laws of all countries. The Council passed the clean-environment resolution proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, which also calls on countries to boost their abilities to improve the environment, by 43-0 while four member states – China, India, Japan and Russia – abstained. The resolution also underscores the differentiated impacts of environmental hazards and climate change, noting that the most vulnerable groups are most affected by the brunt of such hazards.
On this occasion, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, insisted: “Bold action is now required to ensure this resolution on the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social, and environmental policies.”
What is the human right to a healthy environment?
The recent resolution passed by the Human Rights Council states: ‘the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment [is] a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights’. There are two core ideas that flow from this definition.
The first is that all people possess the right to a healthy environment. By virtue of being a human being, we have rights, ranging from the right to a fair trial to the right to education. We do not earn human rights and they cannot be taken away from us. We all have the right to a healthy environment – we are owed a healthy environment in our immediate vicinity, so that each of us as an individual can live safely, and we are owed a healthy global environment, so that our global society can thrive.
The second is that a healthy environment is a necessary foundation for the achievement of other human rights. For example, we all have the right to life, but environmental harms, like natural disasters or pollution, severely impact that right. In essence, we are all ‘ecologically embedded beings’ – we exist within our environment, we breathe air, we drink water, we go for our daily walk to overcome lockdown anxiety. If our environment is seriously polluted or unsafe – then all our human rights are at risk.
Why it has been acknowledge?
For a long time, environmentalists have been concerned that we spend too much time thinking about the environment in terms of its benefits to human beings, and that the environment has intrinsic benefits we shouldn’t subordinate to human interests. But the more we understand the ways in which we humans are dependent on a healthy environment, the lesser the gap there is between a human-centred and an ecocentric approach to environmental protection. We can’t really have a healthy environment unless the environment is healthy for everything else that lives here as well.
A second way we could respond to this concern is to say, well, why don’t we just give nature its own rights? Some states have started to do that, such as New Zealand, which granted the Whanganui River legal personhood a few years ago. That approach hasn’t been incorporated into international law or adopted at the UN level yet.
How far has this right spread around the world?
The human right to a healthy environment has been recognized in a number of regional human rights treaties, including in Africa and Latin America. And in fact, the majority of the world’s countries have recognized in their national constitutions a right to a healthy environment.
In the United States and some other influential countries, this right has never been included in the national constitution. And the United Nations has never recognized it.
In the countries that already recognize this right, what impact is that having?
In his book, ‘The Environmental Rights Revolution’, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd looked at the worldwide spread of the right to a healthy environment. He found that countries that had adopted the right tended to perform better on different environmental indicators.
For example, in Costa Rica, the constitutional right to a healthy environment is cited by legal experts as being one of the main reasons why the country’s environmental policies are as strong as they are. Of course, there’s always a question about causality — maybe countries already more interested in protecting the environment are more likely to adopt that right.
A human rights perspective also gives us a way of applying an already developed area of law without having to create everything from scratch, and a path into forums that might not otherwise be open to discussing environmental issues.
Courts will also listen to human rights arguments.
What difference would it make?
It would clarify the basis for United Nations institutions to examine this right. The UNHRC has something called the Universal Periodic Review, through which it reviews the human rights record of every country. So, it would be a much more logical review process now.
Finally, it would push countries to accept and implement it domestically. And it would put more pressure on countries that have adopted it but haven’t done anything to implement it.
But what good is a non-legally binding resolution?
Human Rights Council resolutions might not be legally binding, but they do contain strong political commitments. The best example we have of what kind of a difference these UN resolutions make is if we look back at the resolutions in 2010 that, for the first time, recognized the right to water. That was a catalyst for governments all over the world who added the right to water to their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws.
In this backdrop, the resolution should be a catalyst for more ambitious action on every single environmental issue that we face. It really is historic, and it really is meaningful for everyone because we know right now that 90% of people in the world are breathing polluted air. “[R]ight off the bat if we can use this resolution as a catalyst for actions to clean up air quality, then we are going to be improving the lives of billions of people,” emphasizes David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level will support efforts to address environmental crises in a more coordinated, effective and non-discriminatory manner, help achieve the Sustainable Developing Goals, provide stronger protection of rights and of the people defending the environment, and help create a world where people can live in harmony with nature.
The global community has acknowledged that we deserve a healthy environment – to live joyously and freely with clean air, water and flourishing life around us. Now it is time for us to get the same recognition from our own government.
The writer is a CSS aspirant.