UN Recognition of Environmental Right Caps Long Vance Center Effort

September 2022

By a vote of 161-0-8 (abstentions), the UN General Assembly in July passed a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and called upon States, international organizations, business enterprises, and others to “scale up” their efforts to ensure this right. Thus culminated a ten-year effort of the Vance Center and many others to promote this recognition.

Over 100 additional countries joined as co-sponsors with the five countries originally proposing the resolution – Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland. An unprecedented global campaign by states, civil society, legal scholars and many UN agencies provided a momentous push for recognition of the right. Notably, the New York City Bar Association weighed in with a letter to the Biden Administration urging it to support recognition.

The right aims to protect humanity from all forms of environmental degradation, at a time when air pollution, the climate crisis, toxic substances, and the loss of biodiversity are wreaking havoc around the world. How the right to a healthy environment, though not binding at the international level, can secure the rights of marginalized women, children, Indigenous peoples and local communities, persons living in poverty or with disabilities, migrants, and many others at risk has become the subject of intense focus and action. Among the numerous potential positive outcomes are stronger environmental laws and policies, government and corporate accountability, promotion of environmental justice, and more rigorous enforcement of the right in court decisions.

The Vance Center Environment Program is honored to have supported, since 2012, the current and previous UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights and the Environment, Prof. David Boyd and Prof. John Knox, in their arduous, intrepid efforts to secure recognition of the right to a healthy environment. With extraordinary collaboration by Vance Committee law firms Clifford Chance and White & Case and other firms around the globe, our research established that 155 UN Member States already recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, laws or jurisprudence and became a cornerstone in the successful advocacy campaign for the right.

Prof. Boyd believes “The resolution has the potential to be a turning point for humanity, improving the life and enjoyment of human rights of billions of individuals as well as the health of our extraordinary planet.” The Environment Program will continue to provide our clients with pro bono legal support in this area, including the submission of amicus briefs in cases seeking to enforce the right.