In July 2022, the UN General Assembly, with 161 votes in favour and eight abstentions, declared access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a universal human right. The recognition of this human right results from decades of relentless work of nations at the forefront of climate change, such as the Maldives archipelago, and over 1,000 civil society organisations. As of now, this right is thus incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An analogous text adopted last year by the Human Rights Council served as a basement to frame this new resolution.
On the 20th of October 2022, the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) organised a hybrid event to discuss the implementation of this new right and further elaborate on the potential challenges and opportunities of the resolution emphasising the actors having a role to play in its completion.
“The health of the environment reflects the health of the people and the planet” – Joan Carling, Global Executive Director of The Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI).
A step forward to tackle the trifold planetary crisis
The resolution seeks to foster States, international organisations, and business enterprises to ramp up and accelerate their endeavour to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all. This landmark development evidence that Member States can gather to collectively address the triple planetary crisis, namely climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. As such, natural calamities, due to climate change, are increasing in intensity, frequency, duration, and severity, biodiversity is declining, and the World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that air pollution is the main cause of disease and premature death worldwide.
Although not legally binding or enforceable, David Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, pinpointed that this resolution can catalyse action as they empower people to direct the responsibility towards Governments. He underscored that the right to water and sanitation was also implemented on a non-binding principle and resulted on the same basis, resulting in positive changes.
Governments are not the sole actors that need to take action, multilateral collaboration is required. Viveka Risberg, Program Director of Sustainable Production and Consumption at AxFoundation, stressed that the business sector plays an essential role in human rights. However, there is a lack of awareness about the new resolution, which may ineluctably trigger inadequate responses because companies do not know how to handle this right, linking ecological sustainability with human rights. In this regard, she pointed out that civil society, organisations, and human and environmental rights experts can support businesses in providing clear guidance on the scope of companies’ responsibility for their footprint.
To which extent can the resolution benefit vulnerable and marginalised groups?
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, urged nations to act according to this newly recognised right to rapidly become “a reality for everyone, everywhere.”
This right should contribute to the well-being of all, including the most vulnerable and marginalised people. As such, instead of “begging”, it is now the right of everyone to “demand” Governments to act, explained David Boyd.
Joan Carling emphasised that indigenous people are deeply persecuted by businesses that unsustainably harness their territory as companies value financial profit at the expense of nature and human rights. In this light, on behalf of indigenous cohorts, Joan Carling perceives the new resolution as an additional instrument to protect the environment as a matter of right. She continues by highlighting that such right legitimately strengthens their voice to pursue a holistic development approach. Based on the resolution, Carling called national policy-making bodies to review their policy to end indigenous people’s criminality, and discrimination and to provide access to justice to environmental defenders and victims. Through the implementation of this resolution, she hoped for substantive changes to reverse environmental exploitation through environmental protection.
To ensure the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, Cyprian Maundu Kitenge, Catholic Youth Network for Environment Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA), mentioned that the establishment of a fund to combat climate change would strongly contribute to the well-being of youth as climate events force them to drop out schools.
Joan Carling highlighted the crucial need to allocate resources to rehabilitate and restore degraded areas, halt pollution, and implement instruments to protect the environment for economic and business activities. Cyprian Maundu Kitenge underpinned the ambitious expectations of youth for COP27 and the release of NDCs with priorities targeting adaptation, mitigation, climate finance, and loss and damage. He further added that youth participation in decision-making processes and partnerships must increase as it is challenging to communicate their issues.
Maria Neira, WHO environment chief, outlined the importance of translating this new right into measurements and the development of national legislation and standards.
To sum up, this newly adopted right will likely have a prominent impact in the future to enhance the full enjoyment of all human rights. It supports a people-centred approach, one of the 10th recommendations from the Stockholm +50 event, and will thereby contribute to addressing the triple planetary crisis. States, international organisations, and businesses are strongly encouraged to scale up their actions. To finish, multilateral environmental agreements will reinforce the fulfilment of the resolution.
“We are at a time where we cannot wait, we cannot wait to take action on the triple planetary crisis”, Cecilia Scharp, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department for Policy and Global Cooperation at Sida.
Written by David Mingasson, SIANI reporter