Written by: Kimberly White 

The United Nations has recognized the right to a healthy environment for the first time. 

In a landmark decision, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) passed resolution 48/13, recognizing that having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a fundamental human right. 

Proposed by Costa Rica, Slovenia, Morocco, Switzerland, and the Maldives, the resolution passed with 43 votes in favor. Russia, China, India, and Japan abstained. 

The move follows three decades of activism from civil society and communities across the globe. 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that “recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is about protecting people and planet – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.”

Bachelet noted that the Human Rights Council’s decision “clearly recognizes environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.”

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), hailed the resolution’s adoption as a “breakthrough moment” for environmental justice.

“It is a message to one billion children at extremely high risk of the impacts of a changed climate: a healthy environment is your right. No one can take away nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate from you,” said Andersen.

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment has tremendous potential to ignite transformative changes within environmental law, says David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

“This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year,” said Boyd. “It will spark constitutional changes and stronger environmental laws, with positive implications for air quality, clean water, healthy soil, sustainably produced food, green energy, climate change, biodiversity and the use of toxic substances.”

Sébastien Duyck, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said the vote should serve as a “wake-up call” to States to prioritize the protection of environmental human rights defenders and those who are most vulnerable to climate change. 

Additionally, the Council passed a second resolution aimed at increasing its focus on the intersection of human rights and the climate emergency. Resolution 48/14 established a Special Rapporteur role explicitly dedicated to addressing the human rights impacts of climate change. 

Francesca Migrone, an attorney at CIEL, stated that the new Special Rapporteur will be “the focal point for questions related to climate change and human rights, looking into issues in the context of human rights-based climate action and international cooperation that have not been given enough attention so far.” 

Migrone added that the new human rights expert would be beneficial for frontline communities, helping their demands be “better reflected” in relevant international discussions.  

The UN Human Rights Chief emphasized the need for bold action following the landmark vote, stating that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment should serve as a “springboard” to drive transformative economic, social, and environmental policies that will help safeguard people and nature. 

Bachelet hopes that the resolutions will help spur action leading up to COP26 in Glasgow. 

“We must build on this momentum to move beyond the false separation of environmental action and protection of human rights. It is all too clear that neither goal can be achieved without the other, and to that end a balanced, human rights-based approach to sustainable development must be ensured,” added Bachelet.

Header Image Credit: Krzysztof Niewolny/Unsplash