Our key takeaway: A new right for a new era. Everyone, everywhere, has a human right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The recognition of the right by the General Assembly this Thursday follows the adoption of a similar resolution by the Human Rights Council in October 2021. As a reminder, the UN General Assembly is the UN’s only forum with representation from all 193 Member States - so this recognition of a new right is a big deal. This human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment has now become part of the international legal framework, alongside all other fundamental social, economic, cultural, civic and political rights that form the backbone of the United Nations system. And now it’s time for truly bold action by governments and the private sector to make this right a reality. Companies: what bold steps can you take today as you seek to reflect this new right into your policies and processes under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights?
On Thursday 28th July, the UN General Assembly recognised the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (in resolution 76/300). This recognition follows the adoption of a similar resolution by the Human Rights Council in October 2021 (A/HRC/RES/48/13):
- UN Secretary General António Guterres notes that “This landmark development demonstrates that Member States can come together in our collective fight against the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all. The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples. The resolution will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments. However, the adoption of the resolution is only the beginning. The Secretary-General urges States to "make the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a reality for everyone, everywhere.”
- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet notes that “This decision reflects that all rights are connected to the health of our environment. Every person, everywhere, has a right to eat, breathe and drink without poisoning their bodies in doing so, and to be able to live harmoniously with the natural world, without constantly growing threats of ecosystem collapse and climate catastrophe. … Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now. … Today’s decision by the General Assembly marks the culmination of many years of advocacy by activists from all corners of the environmental justice movement. We know the scale of the dangers we face. If we are to protect our planet for present and future generations, it is now time for truly bold action by governments and the private sector as well. And for all of us to stand together to make the right to a healthy environment our lived and shared reality.”
- Next steps in practice: UNDP delves into what this recognition means in practice: “A global human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is now part of the international legal framework alongside all other fundamental social, economic, cultural, civic and political rights that form the backbone of the United Nations system, in addition to being part of national laws in more than 150 countries. It should help catalyze an urgent transition to more resilient, inclusive, gender-responsive models of sustainable production and consumption while upholding justice and human rights. … The onus is on Member States, the private sector, politicians and leaders to act now to realize this right. What does this mean in practice? Well, now governments have an obligation to promote, protect and fulfil this right. A clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a matter of justice, with expanded opportunities for advocacy, legal claims, strategic litigation, and ultimately, greater accountability of states and other actors, including businesses, for their actions towards our environment. Within this context, the role of environmental human rights defenders, who have already paid a high price for their calls and actions to stop harmful practices, is critical. In 2020, 227 land and environmental activists were murdered, the highest number recorded for a second consecutive year. The positive impact of the UN General Assembly’s landmark recognition is well proven as a tool for bringing real change that benefits people. Since the right to food was recognized as a human right in the mid-1960s, it has enabled national human rights institutions and courts to address threats to food security. In Brazil, a court upheld activists’ claims that local authorities failed to ensure the rights to food, education and health for children and adolescents in an impoverished area. The decision resulted in the expansion of key social services. In India, invoking the right to food allowed a civil society organization to win a Supreme Court case enforcing food distribution schemes and policies that led to support for the population in times of famine in drought-affected areas. Likewise, more legal cases have emerged since the right to water was recognized as a human right in 2010.”