This op-ed by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen was originally published on 13 July 2022 in Reuters
So many of the human rights we take for granted today once did not exist: the right to life, the right to religious freedom, the right to work, the right to health, the rights to education, freedom from slavery and torture. These rights may not be universally applied, but once they were adopted, they brought progress – not least by allowing people to demand these rights.
When the United Nations General Assembly meets in July, it has the opportunity to add another universally recognised right to this list, one that we need now more than any other time in history: the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The assembly must adopt a resolution recognising this right – because the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste is a huge threat to humanity’s present and future generations. This crisis is undermining almost every other right we have already recognised.
Nine out of ten children are exposed to deadly air pollution, violating their right to health. An average of four environmental defenders are murdered every week, violating their right to life. Climate change is forcing people out of their homes, violating their right to adequate housing. Nature and biodiversity is in rapid decline, violating the right to self-determination and cultural identity of indigenous peoples.
We have seen important advances on the right to a healthy environment, which first emerged as a concept on the international stage five decades ago at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.
We have also seen progress at the national and regional levels, with 80 per cent of countries now recognising the right in their domestic legal frameworks or regional treaties, albeit inconsistently.
In October last year, the UN Human Rights Council recognised this human right for the first time. This moment was the result of coordinated efforts from states, civil society, indigenous peoples, youth, national human rights institutions, business communities and UN bodies. It showed that working together for a common goal can bring results.
The October decision is already having positive impacts. It is boosting the implementation of environmental and human rights laws and commitments, providing better protection to environmental defenders, and triggering accelerated environmental action.
We also now have a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change to address issues such as climate change-induced displacement, corporate accountability, inter-generational equity and a just transition for workers moving from climate-harming industries to more sustainable ones.
As important as the UN Human Rights Council’s action was, recognition of the right by the UN General Assembly, the body to which all UN member states belong, elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition. Universal recognition is a powerful catalyst for accelerated environmental action.
Adopting this resolution would help States to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. It would provide a more predictable and consistent global regulatory environment for businesses.
Adopting this resolution would help people stand up for their right to breathe clean air and their rights to access safe and sufficient water, healthy food, healthy ecosystems and nontoxic environments. Adopting this resolution would send a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight.
If history repeats itself, it could also inspire states that haven’t constitutionalised the right yet to do so.
When the assembly adopted a resolution in July 2010 recognizing the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation, it was a catalyst for governments all over the world to add the right to water to their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws.
We have waited a long time for the moment when the role of the environment in sustaining all of humanity and other rights we enjoy is universally recognised. Now, the UN General Assembly can show solidarity with the billions of people suffering under the growing weight of the triple planetary crisis.
All nations of the world must adopt this resolution and get to work implementing it – so we can place a healthy environment at the centre of human wellbeing and the enjoyment of all human rights.