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United Nations declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right

Source: Unsplash/Vitolda Klein

In a historic move backers say is an important step in countering the alarming decline of the natural world, the UN General Assembly has declared everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment.

In a historic move, UN declares healthy environment a universal human right

The United Nations General Assembly declared this week that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment, a move backers say is an important step in countering the alarming decline of the natural world.

In a resolution passed on Thursday 28 July, at UN headquarters in New York City, the General Assembly said climate change and environmental degradation were some of the most pressing threats to humanity’s future. It called on states to step up efforts to ensure their people have access to a "clean, healthy and sustainable environment."

While the resolution is not legally binding on the 193 UN Member States, nonetheless advocates are hopeful it will have a trickle-down effect, prompting countries to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in national constitutions and regional treaties, and encouraging states to implement those laws. Supporters say that would give environmental campaigners more ammunition to challenge ecologically destructive policies and projects. 

Source: UNEP

General Assembly Meets on Peacebuilding and Human Rights. “This resolution sends a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Source: UN

resolution follows a flurry of similar legal reforms at the international and national levels

The resolution comes as the planet grapples with what Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), called a triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Left unchecked, the new resolution said those problems could have disastrous consequences for people around the world, especially the poor, and women and girls. 

The General Assembly resolution follows a flurry of similar legal reforms at the international and national levels. In April, the UN Human Rights Council declared access to a "clean, healthy and sustainable environment" a human right. 

Earlier this year, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean pledged more protections for so-called environmental defenders, including indigenous peoples campaigning against logging, mining and oil exploration in protected areas. In 2021, 227 environmental defenders were reportedly killed. And last year, New York state passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing citizens a right to a "healthful environment."

Those changes come as environmental campaigners increasingly use the law to force countries to address pressing environmental problems like climate change.

In 2019, following a lawsuit by an environmental group, the Netherland’s top court ordered the Dutch Government to do more to cut carbon emissions, saying climate change was a direct threat to human rights.

More recently, Brazil’s supreme court declared the Paris climate change agreement a human rights treaty, saying the pact should supersede national law. Backers are hopeful the latest General Assembly resolution will eventually lead to more decisions like those.

Source: UNEP 

Source: Unsplash/Robert Collins

latest resolution has potential to trigger environmental action

Virtually all countries have national laws designed to limit pollution, protect plants and animals, and counter climate change. But those rules are not always fully implemented and when they are violated, citizens often struggle to hold governments and companies accountable.

At the national level, declaring a healthy environment a human right would allow people to challenge environmentally destructive policies under human rights legislation, which is well-defined in many countries.

"These resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful," said David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the environment, before the vote.

In the days before the General Assembly resolution was passed, Andersen pointed to a similar decree from 2010 that recognised the right to sanitation and clean water. That, she said, spurred countries across the globe to add drinking water protections to their constitutions.

She said the latest resolution has the same historic potential.

"The resolution will trigger environmental action and provide necessary safeguards to people all over the world," said Andersen. “It will help people stand up for their right to breathe clean air, to access safe and sufficient water, healthy food, healthy ecosystems, and non-toxic environments to live, work, study, and play.”

Source: UN News 

Source: Unsplash/Robert Collins

The international community has given universal recognition to this right

With 161 votes in favour, and eight abstentions*, the resolution (based on a similar text adopted last year by the Human Rights Council), calls upon States, international organisations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. 

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, welcomed the ‘historic’ decision and said the landmark development demonstrates that Member States can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“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”, he said in a statement released by his Spokesperson’s Office.

He added that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.

“The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all”, he said.

Guterres underscored that however, the adoption of the resolution ‘is only the beginning‘ and urged nations to make this newly recognised right ‘a reality for everyone, everywhere’.

*States who abstained: China, Russian Federation, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia.

Source: UN News

Source: Unsplash/Hush Naidoo Jade Photography

Urgent action needed

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also hailed the Assembly’s decision and echoed the Secretary-General’s call for urgent action to implement it.

“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 realise it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now,” she said.

Ms. Bachelet explained that environmental action based on human rights obligations provides vital guardrails for economic policies and business models.

“It emphasises the underpinning of legal obligations to act, rather than simply of discretionary policy.  It is also more effective, legitimate and sustainable,” she added. 

Source: UN News 

Source: Unsplash/bill wegener

A resolution for the whole planet

The text, originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and now co-sponsored by over 100 countries, notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements.

It also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right – and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Mr. David Boyd, the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law.

“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act”, he recently told UN News

Source: UN News 

Source: Unsplash/bill wegener

A victory five decades in the making

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with its own historic declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialised and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and the ocean, and the well-being of people around the world.

UN Member States back then, declared that people have a fundamental right to "an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being," calling for concrete action and the recognition of this right.

Last October, after decades of work by nations at the front lines of climate change, such as the Maldives archipelago, as well as more than 1,000 civil society organisations, the Human Rights Council finally recognised this right and called for the UN General Assembly to do the same.

“From a foothold in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the right has been integrated into constitutions, national laws and regional agreements. Today’s decision elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition”, UN Environment chief, Inger Andersen, explained in a statement published this Thursday.

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment by these UN bodies, although not legally binding— meaning countries don’t have a legal obligation to comply— is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable.

“So, the recognition of this right is a victory we should celebrate. My thanks to Member States and to the thousands of civil society organisations and indigenous peoples’ groups, and tens of thousands of young people who advocated relentlessly for this right. But now we must build on this victory and implement the right”, Ms. Andersen added. 

Source: UN News 

Source: Unsplash/Vitolda Klein

Triple crisis response

As mentioned by the UN Secretary-General, the newly recognised right will be crucial to tackling the triple planetary crisis.

This refers to the three main interlinked environmental threats that humanity currently faces: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss – all mentioned in the text of the resolution.

Each of these issues has its own causes and effects and they need to be resolved if we are to have a viable future on Earth.

The consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, through increased intensity and severity of droughts, water scarcity, wildfires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.

Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, with more than seven million people dying prematurely each year due to pollution.

Finally, the decline or disappearance of biological diversity – which includes animals, plants and ecosystems – impacts food supplies, access to clean water and life as we know it. 

Source: UN News  

Right to a healthy environment. On 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing the right to a healthy environment. Acknowledging that climate change and environmental degradation are some of the most pressing threats to humanity’s future, the resolution calls upon states to step up efforts towards a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Source: YouTube/UN Environment Program
Make an Impact


Okay, that’s the environment covered, but what about indoors? 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.