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UN Human Rights Council recognised the human right to a healthy environment

On the 8th of October 2021, the Human Rights Council at the 48th regular session adopted resolution 48/13, which recognised for the first time that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, David Boyd, defined the resolution as a historic breakthrough, “with a life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year. It will spark constitutional changes and stronger environmental laws, with positive implications for air quality, clean water, healthy soil, sustainably produced food, green energy, climate change, biodiversity and the use of toxic substances”. The resolution is particularly important for all environmental human rights defenders and for communities who suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation – including women, children, indigenous, and other vulnerable groups. At the same time, through a second resolution (48/14), the Council also increased its focus on the human rights impacts of climate change by establishing a Special Rapporteur dedicated specifically to that issue.

Boyd urged leaders who will participate in the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, starting at the end of the month, and at the UN conference on biodiversity (COP 15) in Kunming, China (11-15 October), to put human rights at the centre of their actions. “In a world that too often emphasises the differences between people, the right to a healthy environment reflects a fundamental truth that should unite us all”, he said. Boyd also thanked five Council members – Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland – for bringing the resolution to adoption after civil society and communities had fought for it for 30 years. Recognition of this right had also been endorsed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and 15 UN agencies. It was also supported by young activists, business groups, and more than 1,300 civil society organisations worldwide.

On this occasion, Michelle Bachelet called on States to take bold actions to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment and “to push for transformative economic, social and environmental policies that will protect people and nature”. At the beginning of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, Bachelet indicated the triple planetary threats of climate change, pollution, and nature loss as the greatest human rights challenge of our era. She also stressed the importance of the rights to participation, access to information, and access to justice for the human right to a healthy environment to be fully realised, also in light of the unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders reportedly killed last year. “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”, she concluded.