The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, the first formal recognition of this right at the global level.
The UN General Assembly is encouraged to consider adopting a similar resolution.
The HRC also established a Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights in the context of the climate emergency.
The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, the first formal recognition of this right at the global level. The HRC was meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of its 48th regular session.
The resolution was proposed by five HRC member states: Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland. During the meeting on 8 October 2021, four governments abstained from voting – China, India, Japan, and Russia – and the resolution passed with 43 votes in favor and none opposed. By the text (HRC resolution 48/13), the Council:
- recognizes the human right to a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”;
- encourages States to:
- build capacities to protect the environment, cooperate with each other, the UN system, and other bodies and actors, including civil society, business, and national human rights institutions, on implementing the right;
- share good practices in fulfilling the right, and build synergies between protecting human rights and protecting the environment;
- consider that efforts to protect the environment must fully respect other human rights obligations, including those related to gender equality;
- adopt policies for the enjoyment of the right, “including with respect to biodiversity and ecosystems”; and
- account for human rights obligations related to this right in implementing the SDGs.
- invites the UN General Assembly to consider the matter.
Also according to the resolution,
- environmental degradation, climate change, and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy human rights, including the right to life;
- the exercise of human rights is vital to the protection of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment;
- additional measures should be taken for those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm; and
- a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is critical to the enjoyment of all human rights.
In the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, UN Member States declared that people have a fundamental right to an environment “of quality” that permits a life of dignity and wellbeing. The 2021 resolution was supported by more than 1,300 civil society organizations and Indigenous Peoples’ groups, 15 UN agencies, business groups, more than 90,000 children from around the world, and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.
UNEP reports that when the resolution was adopted, applause broke out in the normally quiet Council chamber. Welcoming the resolution, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, called it a breakthrough for environmental justice and called it “a shield for individuals and communities” against risks to their health and livelihoods. In particular, she said it sends a message to the “one billion children at extremely high risk of the impacts of a changed climate: a healthy environment is your right.” She encouraged the UNGA to consider adopting a similar resolution.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the right must serve as a springboard for transformative economic, social, and environmental policies that will protect people and nature. She added that neither environmental action nor human rights protection can be achieved without the other; their separation is a false one.
Also during the HRC’s 48th session, the Council established a Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights in the context of the climate emergency. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) said the two decisions – the global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment and the creation of a Special Rapporteur – “signal a new era in rights-based climate policy.” CIEL said the Special Rapporteur decision, in particular, indicates the Council’s understanding of the need to “respond to the fact that climate change is the single greatest threat to the enjoyment of human rights in the 21st century.” [HRC resolution] [Meeting summary] [UNEP article] [UN news] [Webpage for HRC’s 48th regular session]