Landmark Recognition of Right to a Healthy Environment Encourages Vance Center

October 2021

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The Vance Center took gratification from the outcome of the October 8 session of the Human Rights Council, where, by a vote of 43-0-4 (abstentions), the United Nations for the first time recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, with the support of more than 1,300 civil society organizations and Indigenous peoples’ groups, young activists, 15 UN agencies, and business groups, Resolution 48/13 (UN Link not yet active) represents a momentous accomplishment. It aims to protect human rights from all forms of environmental degradation, at a time when air pollution, water pollution, climate change, toxic substances, and the loss of biodiversity are having major impacts on human rights around the world.

The Vance Center Environment Program, since 2012, has provided significant research support to the current and predecessor UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd and John Knox, in their quest to secure recognition of the right to a healthy environment.  The research determined that 155 UN Member States already recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, laws, or jurisprudence.

The Vance Center expects that the resolution will serve as a catalyst for more ambitious action by all States, to heighten the priority for environmental protection and strengthen efforts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Even though the resolution is not legally binding, it should lead to further improvement in environmental legislation and policies that protect human rights and encourage more States to recognize the right.

This ongoing legal development will ensure a focus on women, children, Indigenous peoples and local communities, persons living in poverty or with disabilities, migrants, and many others at risk, including environmental human rights defenders. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet observed, “We must 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, and to that end a balanced, human rights-based approach to sustainable development must be ensured.” The UN General Assembly is expected to take up the issue next year.

After the October 8 vote, Environment Program staff attended an expert consultation, Challenges, Opportunities And Priorities For The Next Three Years, hosted by Special Rapporteur David Boyd, to discuss ways to advance the recognition and implementation of the right to a healthy environment in connection with his mandate. Susan Kath, Director of the Environment Program, also spoke to the membership of the NGO/CSW about the historic adoption of the right and its future application to human rights issues.