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UN body adopts resolution recognizing right to healthy, sustainable environment

11 October 2021 Keiron Greenhalgh

The UN's top human rights body voted 8 October to adopt a resolution recognizing the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, although some of the world's biggest emitters are not sold on the matter.

In the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), a push by countries including Costa Rica, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the Maldives led to a vote on and then recognition of that right.

In advance of the vote, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd tweeted that the first holder of his post, Fatmah Zohrah Ksentini, urged recognition of the right in 1994.

After the vote, Boyd said in a statement that "the world's future looks a little bit brighter today."

"This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year," Boyd said, adding. "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."

The vote was the culmination of over 40 years of efforts to recognize the right, Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said in a statement.

"This new recognition will serve as a catalyst for institutions and other stakeholders to take steps that better respect, protect, and fulfill the right. It includes, but is not limited to, the mobilizing resources and political will," he said.

Amnesty International Law and Policy Director Ashfaq Khalfan added 8 October that the vote brought hope in the context of widespread and increasing climate disasters, and was a milestone moment in the battle against environmental degradation.


Still, the vote's eventual impact is unclear. The resolution is nonbinding and some of the world's top polluters failed to or were unable to vote for the resolution, and even those who did indicated reservations.

China, India, Japan, and the Russian Federation abstained from the vote. The US withdrew from the HRC under President Donald Trump. And there were worries the UK, the host of the upcoming UN COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow would also withhold support, according to activists.

A couple of days before the vote, Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director, Human Rights Watch and Friends of the Earth co-CEOs Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles warned UK Prime Boris Johnson he was in danger of undoing much of the good his efforts in the run-up to COP26 had promised if the British government didn't back the resolution.

"With just four weeks before the UK hosts the COP26 in Glasgow, the UK's pledge to be a climate and environment leader is again being contradicted by its own actions," they wrote, adding that despite lofty promises, the UK was opposing the resolution.

The UK did back the resolution in the end, and Ahmed tweeted that Johnson and the UK government had decided to be on the right side of history.

Still, UK officials continue to express doubts.

Rita French, UK Ambassador for Human Rights, told the HRC that "recognition of the right in the resolution is without due regard to the formation of international human rights law and without prejudice to the UK's legal position."

"A human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment has not been agreed in any human rights treaty and it is yet to emerge as a customary right," she said, adding that recognizing rights without due consideration and a common understanding at an international level of what they comprise creates ambiguity.

US rejoining?

America, meanwhile, did not get a vote. The Biden administration wants a seat at the table again after Trump pulled out in 2018. It may regain that seat—and voting rights—as early as 13 October, according to media reports.

Still, the Biden administration has its doubts about the merits of the HRC due to a number of issues. In February, when saying the US would return to the HRC table, the Department of State tabbed it as a "flawed body."

State said the HRC was "in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel. However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of US leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage."

Whether the US would have supported the right to a sustainable environment if it were at the table on 8 October is up for debate.

The US abstained from a vote on a UN resolution recognizing the right to clean water and sanitation in 2010. It has also not ratified a number of human rights treaties such as the Convention on Violence Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The US continues to work with its allies on issues of concern, including when it comes to the HRC, an administration official said.

Next steps

Either way on US involvement, the latest resolution is just the first step for activists around the globe, as well as Boyd.

Boyd urged governments 8 October to incorporate the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment into their constitutions and legislation. He also urged leaders taking part in talks in Glasgow and at the UN conference on biodiversity (COP15) starting in Kunming, China, this week, to put human rights at the center of their actions.

It was a stance echoed by 166 civil society organizations and individuals 11 October, who called upon world leaders to put human rights at the center of environmental policy in an open letter. Respecting and protecting human rights and protecting the environment are inextricably linked, they said.

Resolving the intersecting crises humankind faces, the groups said, demands a holistic approach to environmental policy that embeds human rights and tackles systemic problems, including historically rooted social injustice, ecological destruction, state capture by corporations, corruption, and impunity, as well as and social and economic inequality.

Posted 11 October 2021 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Senior Editor


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