A Global Call for our Right to a Healthy Environment  

The right to a healthy environment is constitutionally protected in over 100 countries. Another 62 countries refer in their constitutions to a healthy environment, but do not make it a right. Similarly, there is no mention of this right as such in international human rights instruments, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rightsor even the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, wrote that this is because “society’s awareness of the magnitude, pace, and adverse consequences of environmental degradation was not sufficiently advanced during the era when these agreements were drafted to warrant the inclusion of ecological concerns”.1

Indeed, the first formal recognition of this right was in Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration of 1972:

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, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations. 

Today, however, about 60 years after the Covenants were written, science is clear. There is sufficient evidence of the harm caused to the Earth and humankind by man-made climate change. Ecosystems and biodiversity across the world show a rapid decline. We must act now, for the sake of our children and future generations.

The right to a healthy environment calls for recognition of exactly this: that our environment should be safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable. Any action should follow the “do no harm” principle and abide by the principle of intergenerational equity. These principles require that natural resources and ecosystems are protected so that present and future generations can fully enjoy their human rights, and in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

For this purpose, an international coalition of civil society organisations, social movements, local communities, and Indigenous Peoples has come together to call on the United Nations Human Rights Council to recognize without delay the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. This has the result of increasing protection for the most vulnerable, like women, children, and Indigenous Peoples.

The United Nations Human Rights Council meets every year in September. The first letter by this coalition was sent on September 10, 2020 and has been signed by 1,097 organisations so far. The World Future Council is a signatory to the letter. New organisations can sign the letter here.

“A healthy environment is essential for human life and dignity. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the life-sustaining climate we enjoy, all are dependent on healthy, diverse, integral and functioning ecosystems. In view of the global environmental crisis that currently violates and jeopardizes the human rights of billions of people on our planet, global recognition of this right is a matter of utmost urgency. As we all know, there are no human rights on a dead planet.” 

(From the Letter) 

In October 2020, the Human Rights Council passed Resolution 45/30 on Rights of the child: realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment. In it, it

4. Urges States to take the necessary measures to ensure the full enjoyment by children of all their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to protect them from the effects of environmental harm through effective regulation and enforcement mechanisms, including by:

(c) Considering recognizing a right to a healthy environment in national legislation in order to promote justiciability, strengthen accountability and facilitate greater participation, improving environmental protection and performance and ensuring rights for present and future generations;

This is an historic resolution, which underlines the need for States to take measures to protect the rights of children and future generations in the face of environmental harm!

At a recent High-Level event, Inger Anderson, Executive Director of UNEP, pointed to the three large and inter-related crises, which can be addressed through this Right to A Healthy Environment and integrated specific actions: the climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, the pollution and waste crisis. She reinforced the Global Call by the coalition by adding that recognition of this right will also help translate the environmental laws into actions on the ground which leads to better environmental outcomes.

Why is it important that the Human Rights Council recognises the right to a healthy environment? The Human Rights Council is vested with a unique responsibility to address threats to humans and their rights. A recognition of this right by the Human Rights Council would emphasise the urgent need for effective climate action and pave the way for strengthened international cooperation to address environmental degradation, including by providing technical assistance, capacity-budling, and guidance, while also reinforcing existing efforts against climate change.

By describing this right as one to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, the UN Human Rights Council will build on these developments and lead towards a common ground among States that will facilitate the exchange of experiences and the clarification of obligations deriving from environmental and human rights law. 

(From the Letter)