Historic UN resolution recognizes healthy environment is a human right

Posted July 28, 2022
India fishing

Sustainably managing, preserving and restoring healthy ecosystems and the rich biodiversity upon which healthy lives and livelihoods depend is critical to a development trajectory that leaves nobody behind.

UNDP India

In a landmark move, on 28 July the United Nations General Assembly recognized that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right. This historic resolution–agreed by the UN’s only forum with representation of all 193 Member States­–has the potential to bring real change. It could usher in social and economic transformation to advance an inclusive green recovery and accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda. Member States now face a stark choice: to respect and uphold this right by taking action to address today’s multiple planetary crises, or to delay and obfuscate.

This resolution (confirming a 2021 resolution of the Human Rights Council) comes at a moment when growing multidimensional poverty, inequalities and fragility are exacerbated by closely-linked and complex crises. Conflict, pandemics, unsustainable debt, significant inflationary pressures, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change combine to create significant threats to human security and human development.

Every day research and news headlines confirm that human-induced environmental degradation and climate change are causing dangerous and widespread disruption of nature and livelihoods. In 2020 alone, natural disasters caused the displacement of 30 million people, three times the number of persons displaced during the same year by conflicts. Air pollution results in an estimated seven million deaths every year. Millions face challenges in accessing water in the Middle East and North Africa as rainfall is projected to decline by 20 to 40 percent. These challenges have been compounded by political, economic and social upheaval as a result of globally significant events including the health pandemic and the Ukraine war.

A clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential for our survival. A stable climate is a precondition for good harvests and food security, for economic well-being and progress on human development. Sustainably managing, preserving and restoring healthy ecosystems and the rich biodiversity upon which healthy lives and livelihoods depend is critical to a development trajectory that ensures no one is left behind.  

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. Indeed, environment and poverty are deeply interlinked; while poverty and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are key drivers of environmental degradation, environmental degradation and climate change are simultaneously drivers of poverty. Thus, realizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including through strengthening positive environmental management, can also bring much needed benefits for addressing inequality and poverty, and enabling long term prosperity for all. The onus is on Member States, the private sector, politicians and leaders to act now to realize this right.

Zimbabwe solar clean water

A global human right to a clean, healthy environment is now part of the international legal framework, along with the right to water and food.

UNDP Zimbabwe

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.

UNDP and our partners who advocate for people-centred solutions to today’s complex development challenges, know that universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment can be a game-changer. So where do we start? Here are some of the actions UNDP believes are critical for advancing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment:

  • Strengthening legal frameworks: Research has shown those countries where environmental protection is enshrined in constitutions have stronger environmental laws, and countries with stronger environmental laws have more quickly reduced their ecological footprints and levels of pollution. Among those countries, Argentina, Costa Rica and the Philippines are examples where constitutional environmental rights have led to stronger protection of the environment through courts.
  • Ensuring inclusive processes: Under UNDP’s Climate Promise, 110,000 people are engaged in stakeholder consultations on Nationally Determined Contributions in 67 countries helping to build social consensus and explicit recognition of the roles of youth in renewed climate pledges. In 97 countries, projects have been implemented to strengthen women’s leadership in managing natural resources, which has shown to be associated with better resource governance and conservation outcomes. UNDP supports 24 countries to include gender responsive policies in national climate pledges.
  • Empowering people to be active participants in environmental protection: The human rights of marginalized communities, women, children, people with disabilities and indigenous persons are all disproportionately affected by the impacts of biodiversity loss, pollution, drought, floods and other natural hazards. They are also powerful agents of change and have a crucial role to play in environmental decision-making. In Chile, for example, “the role of women was fundamental in approving environmental provisions [in the new draft constitution], as they voted overwhelmingly more in their favour,” according to Chilean Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Marcela Rios.

We all depend on the environment for our direct and indirect wellbeing, so threats to it are threats to human rights, to peace, security and sustainable development. UNDP, and the broader UN system, is committed to supporting governments, civil society, businesses and people in their efforts to make the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a reality for all. The time for action is now.