UN Council Declares 'Access to a Healthy Environment' a Human Right


| LAST UPDATE 10/12/2021

By Billie Delgado
Healthy Environment Human Right
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After decades of campaigning, the right to a clean and sustainable environment was recognized for the first time by the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, October 8th. With a 48/13 passing, the resolution--originally proposed by Costa Rica, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland and the Maldives-- is set to hit the table during the 2022 UN General Assembly in New York.

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The decision arrived just weeks before the highly anticipated COP26 in Glasgow, serving as a reminder that bold action is critical now more than ever. The resolution aims to ensure transformative environmental measures that provide access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

During the session meeting, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet demanded the States "build on this momentum to move beyond the false separation of environmental action and protection of human rights. It is all too clear that neither goal can be achieved without the other." The landmark decision highlights the link between human rights and climate change mitigation, but many question whether or not it's legally binding.

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For the time being, the council has not implemented any immediate legal consequence for breaches to the resolution. This was a critical aspect for prominent States, such as, the UK who nearly opposed leading up to the vote despite eventually voting in favor. After an outburst of applause from supporting States, Costa Rica's ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar, shared her belief that the decision will, "send a powerful message to communities around the world struggling with climate hardship that they are not alone." Even with slight contention, the decision remains a first step towards tangible global action that ensures a healthy environment for people and planet.

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The threat of climate change is one of the single greatest human rights challenges of our era, as described by High Commissioner Bachelet. The protection of our natural systems remains a basic necessity to the survival of communities around the world, with those on the frontlines most intensely affected. As discovered by the World Health Organization(WHO), roughly 13.7 million people a year die due to environmental risks associated with air pollution or chemical exposure. For this reason and many more, approaching the protection of environmental quality through a human rights lens serves to provide critical justice and set an obligation of States to protect the livelihood of human civilization on Earth.

To learn more, read the United Nations official press briefing notes here.