Just in time for COP26: the UN Human Rights Council recognises the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Week of 11 October 2021

Just in time for COP26: the UN Human Rights Council recognises the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Our key takeaway: The UN Human Rights Council has recognised the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. While the resolution does not have the weight of hard law, it has important implications amidst a growing global reckoning of the ways that climate change, the environment and human well-being are inextricably linked.

Passing with 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions (Russia, India, China and Japan) the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution 48/13 called on the UN General Assembly to “consider the matter” of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment:

    • Not legally binding … but reflective of binding laws: The resolution points out that “more than 155 States have recognized some form of a right to a healthy environment in, inter alia, international agreements or their national constitutions, legislation or policies.” Though Human Rights Council resolutions by themselves are not legally binding, the Council underscores the fact that linking human rights and the environment is far from a new concept in hard law. This is all the more significant in light of the recent spate of climate change litigation—some grounded in the human rights obligations of governments and responsibilities of companies—not to mention the growing body of proposed and adopted legislation requiring companies to account for both their human rights and environmental impacts throughout their full value chains. The Human Rights Council also approved a second resolution establishing a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change—an important vehicle to carry forward this work in practice.
    • Indisputable links between the environment and human rights: The resolution points to the connections between environmental health and the most basic elements of human well-being. It underscores that “the protection of the environment, including ecosystems, contribute to and promote human well-being and the enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, to housing, to safe drinking water and sanitation and to participation in cultural life, for present and future generations” and that “environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.” This is a key message for governments, international organisations and civil society to take into November’s COP26 climate change summit.
    • Obligations and responsibilities for both government and business: States “have the obligation to respect, protect and promote human rights, including in all actions undertaken to address environmental challenges.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, reiterated this by calling on Member States to “take bold actions to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment.” Companies have the responsibility “to respect human rights, including the rights to life, liberty and security of human rights defenders working in environmental matters, referred to as environmental human rights defenders.” The resolution cites the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, cementing the responsibilities of companies towards addressing environmental harm and climate change within the existing soft law framework of the UNGPs.

For more, see UN Human Rights Council, The human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, A/HRC/48/L.23/Rev.1 (October 2021)

“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. 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.”

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bachelet hails landmark recognition that having a healthy environment is a human right (8 October 2021)

“The world’s future looks a little bit brighter today. The United Nations, in an historical development, has for the first time recognised that everyone, everywhere, has a human right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year. It will spark constitutional changes and stronger environmental laws, with positive implications for air quality, clean water, healthy soil, sustainably produced food, green energy, climate change, biodiversity and the use of toxic substances.”

David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, UN recognition of human right to healthy environment gives hope for planet’s future – human rights expert (8 October 2021)