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United Nations declares access to a healthy environment a human right

United Nations declares access to a healthy environment a human right
Source: Pixabay

This month, the UN Human Rights Council recognised, for the first time, that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.

Access to a healthy environment declared a human right by UN rights council

On Friday 8 October 2021, in resolution 48/13, the UN Human Rights Council called on States around the world to work together, and with other partners, to implement this newly recognised right. The text, proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions – from Russia, India, China and Japan. 

At the same time, through a second resolution (48/14), the Council also increased its focus on the human rights impacts of climate change by establishing a Special Rapporteur dedicated specifically to that issue. 

UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet hails landmark recognition by the UN Human Rights Council that having a healthy environment is a human right. Source: Twitter/UN_HRC

‘Bold action’

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on Member States to take bold actions to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment.

Ms. Bachelet said that, having long called for such a step, she was “gratified” that the decision “clearly recognises environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.”

“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 that will protect people and nature,” she added.

At the beginning of the current session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner described the triple planetary threats of climate change, pollution and nature loss as the single greatest human rights challenge of our era.

The new resolution acknowledges the damage inflicted by climate change and environmental destruction on millions of people across the world. It also underlines that the most vulnerable segments of the population are more acutely impacted.

The issue will now go to the UN General Assembly in New York, for further consideration.

Source: UN

Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment; and sustainable environmental governance cannot exist without the establishment of and respect for human rights. This relationship is increasingly recognised, as the right to a healthy environment is enshrined in over 100 constitutions.
Environmental rights means any proclamation of a human right to environmental conditions of a specified quality. Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment; and sustainable environmental governance cannot exist without the establishment of and respect for human rights. This relationship is increasingly recognised, as the right to a healthy environment is enshrined in over 100 constitutions. Source: Unsplash/OSPAN ALI

Decades-long effort

Following the passage of the resolution, Michelle Bachelet paid tribute to the efforts of a diverse array of civil society organisations, including youth groups, national human rights institutions, indigenous peoples’ organisations, businesses and many others.

The High Commissioner also noted that an unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders were reported killed last year, urging Member States to take firm measures to protect and empower them.

“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”, she said.

Costa Rica’s ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, said the decision will "send a powerful message to communities around the world struggling with climate hardship that they are not alone". 

The decision comes weeks before the crucial UN climate change summit, COP26, happening in early November in Glasgow. 

According to World Health Organization (WHO), 24% of all global deaths, roughly 13.7 million deaths a year, are linked to the environment, due to risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure.

Source: UN

Environmental rights are composed of substantive rights (fundamental rights) and procedural rights (tools used to achieve substantial rights).
There are several established human rights related to the environment. Environmental rights are composed of substantive rights (fundamental rights) and procedural rights (tools used to achieve substantial rights). Source: Unsplash/Evgeny Nelmin

Bachelet hails landmark recognition that having a healthy environment is a human right

“The Human Rights Council’s decisive action in recognising 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. It is also about protecting the natural systems which are basic preconditions to the lives and livelihoods of all people, wherever they live,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday (8 October 2021)

“Having long called for such a step, I am gratified that the Council’s action today clearly recognises environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.”

“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 that will protect people and nature,” she added.

“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,” she said. 

“During the run-up to the critical COP-26* meeting in Glasgow, and the negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, today’s Human Rights Council resolutions will hopefully stimulate a wider acceptance of such an approach.”

Source: OHCHR.org

Substantive rights comprise of: civil and political rights, such as the rights to life, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination; economic and social rights such as rights to health, food and an adequate standard of living; cultural rights such as rights to access religious sites; and collective rights affected by environmental degradation, such as the rights of indigenous peoples.
Substantive are those in which the environment has a direct effect on the existence or the enjoyment of the right itself. Substantive rights comprise of: civil and political rights, such as the rights to life, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination; economic and social rights such as rights to health, food and an adequate standard of living; cultural rights such as rights to access religious sites; and collective rights affected by environmental degradation, such as the rights of indigenous peoples. Source: Unsplash/kris

What are environmental rights?

Environmental rights means any proclamation of a human right to environmental conditions of a specified quality. 

Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment; and sustainable environmental governance cannot exist without the establishment of and respect for human rights. This relationship is increasingly recognised, as the right to a healthy environment is enshrined in over 100 constitutions

There are several established human rights related to the environment. Environmental rights are composed of substantive rights (fundamental rights) and procedural rights (tools used to achieve substantial rights).

Substantive Rights

Substantive are those in which the environment has a direct effect on the existence or the enjoyment of the right itself. Substantive rights comprise of: civil and political rights, such as the rights to life, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination; economic and social rights such as rights to health, food and an adequate standard of living; cultural rights such as rights to access religious sites; and collective rights affected by environmental degradation, such as the rights of indigenous peoples.

Procedural Rights

Procedural rights prescribe formal steps to be taken in enforcing legal rights. Procedural rights include 3 fundamental access rightsaccess to information, public participation, and access to justice.

Related information

Source: UNEP.org

Procedural rights include 3 fundamental access rights: access to information, public participation, and access to justice.
Procedural rights prescribe formal steps to be taken in enforcing legal rights. Procedural rights include 3 fundamental access rights: access to information, public participation, and access to justice. Source: Unsplash/Dustan Woodhouse

Who are the United Nations Human Rights Council?

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.

It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. It meets at the UN Office at Geneva.

Source: OHCHR.org

Adding,
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, also welcomed the resolution, calling it “a breakthrough moment for environmental justice.” Adding, “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.” Source: Unsplash/Meritt Thomas
Make an Impact

8 WAYS TO A HEALTHIER HOME

Being outside is great for your health, but there’s a lot you can do to make your indoors healthier too! When we think about our health, the natural tendency is to focus on good nutrition and exercise, and perhaps we spend less time focusing on how our environment can affect our wellbeing. If you want to clean up your house or apartment to make it a safer environment, check out these 8 suggestions to make your home more healthy.