Advancing the Right to a Healthy Environment

Publish Date: 
Monday, January 30, 2023

Amidst a triple planetary crisis (climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss) with existential stakes and devastating impacts for the human rights of billions of people across regions, the universal recognition in 2022 of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is particularly significant. The right  has been described as providing “vital guardrails” against human rights violations and environmental harm. The intensive work  of civil society organizations, social movements and Indigenous Peoples, including ESCR-Net members, played an important role in securing this recognition. What matters looking forward is implementation: how this recognition supports realization of this right for all, and in particular for those who need it the most.

Background: On 28 July 2022, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly by a recorded vote adopted a resolution which recognizes “the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right” and calls on States and other relevant stakeholders to adopt policies and  enhance international cooperation to ensure this human right for all. (161 Member States voted in favor; 0 against and 8 abstained: Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, and Syria). The resolution inter alia affirms the importance of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for the enjoyment of all human rights for present and future generations; acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of environmental damage on the human rights of women and girls and the importance of gender equality; and uplifts the vital role of the rights to information, participation and effective remedy in the protection of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Liliana Avila, senior attorney of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)’s Human Rights and Environment Program and member of ESCR-Net’s Advisory Group for its Environment & ESCR Working Group, applauded the resolution saying that "The United Nations’ recognition is a very important call for States to recognize that the environment involves essential elements without which our existence on the planet would not be possible. Most of the Constitutions in the continent already recognize the healthy environment as a right, and citizens claim it daily through different mechanisms. The step taken undoubtedly strengthens these efforts and advances us towards the construction of societies where this right is a reality."

The General Assembly resolution followed a similar text adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on 8 October 2021, the first formal recognition of the right at the global level.

Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, executive director of the African Indigenous Foundation for Energy and Sustainable Development, former president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and member of  ESCR-Net’s Advisory Group for its Environment & ESCR Working Group, welcomed the Human Rights Council resolution in the following words: “The adoption  of this resolution today on the right to a healthy environment is a watershed in the global effort to restore the environment and protect Mother Nature/Earth. The trees in Ogoniland are bursting with renewed energy and gladness. The waters are roaring with shouts of joy and the land is smiling again to heal, restore and shield us all. A safe and healthy environment guarantees a healthy and prosperous people. It is our moment of victory. This march of progress should be matched by urgent actions by nation states to pass a binding covenant to codify the universal right to a healthy environment’

The resolutions built on more than forty years of efforts to recognize the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in international law. These were made possible in part through the leadership of a core group of states, including Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, which led diplomatic efforts at both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. More significantly, throughout this decades-long struggle, Indigenous Peoples, social movements and civil society organizations played a major part, including through the Global Campaign for the Right to a Healthy Environment. In September 2020, the campaign issued a global call for the UN Human Rights Council to urgently recognise the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This letter garnered over 1350 organizational signatures from 75 countries. The campaign widely mobilized in support of the recognition as well as engaged in political advocacy and strategic communications. ESCR-Net was a core part of this campaign from July 2020 onwards, providing substantive, strategic and logistical support across key areas. After the recognition at the Human Rights Council, the campaign continued its work to achieve a similar outcome at the General Assembly, and this contributed to the successful adoption of the aforementioned resolution.

While a substantial majority of States have already incorporated a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions and laws, and regional systems have explicitly recognized this right, the universal recognition of this right now represents a historic milestone in international human rights law. The agreements can play a catalytic role for States and other relevant stakeholders to scale up efforts to make this right a reality, including through incorporation and enforcement in domestic law. A similar resolution, adopted in 2010,  that recognized the right to sanitation and clean water prompted states around the world to include the right to water in their constitutions. The hope is that this global recognition of the right to a healthy environment will, in line with legal and policy coherence, spur further inclusion of this right at national and regional level laws and policies, encourage implementation where the right already exists,  provide an additional tool for campaigners and organizers to defend their rights and the environment, and potentially create new avenues to strengthen accountability. 

ESCR-Net members have welcomed this normative development, and remain committed to drawing on the resolution in addition to other relevant jurisprudence to embed this right across legal and policy work, for example, through supporting successful civil society advocacy to include the right in the cover decision of COP27 (known as the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan), and foregrounding this right in collective amicus arguments in the La Oroya case regarding environmental injustice being considered now at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, ESCR-Net members also realize that for environmental protection at the scale needed for public and planetary well-being requires stronger legal frameworks, for example the binding treaty for corporate accountability (given the outsized role of business enterprises in our ecological crises); systemic solutions, including opposing current extractive models of development that are destroying the environment; and alternative models emerging from the lived reality of social movements to, “affirm our common connections and responsibilities to future generations, ensure environmental sustainability, and create space for self-determination and the reclamation of freedom.”