Special Rapporteur calls on the UN to recognize the universal right to a healthy environment

by Danica Damplo, Universal Rights Group Blog, Blog, Contemporary and emerging human rights issues, Universal Rights Group NYC

Last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, David R. Boyd, made a historic push at the UN General Assembly for the human right to a healthy environment to be recognised at the global level.

During his landmark address at the GA’s Third Committee, Boyd argued, firstly, that official UN recognition of the human right to a healthy environment would bolster and enhance work already underway through international and regional agreements, and in national laws and policies. Secondly, and most importantly, international recognition of this right would make a major contribution to the interconnected and mutually dependent goals of promoting the full enjoyment of human rights, and protecting and conserving the natural environment. This mutual dependence is explored in Universal Rights Group’s 2018 policy brief, authored by the former Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, on ‘Environmental human rights defenders.’

On the first point, Boyd noted that over 100 national constitutions already recognise the right to a clean and healthy environment, showing how far human rights law has travelled in this field since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Grouping of States have already begun to declare the right at regional level; for example earlier this year Latin America and Caribbean countries agreed an unprecedented multilateral instrument designed, inter alia, to guarantee the right of present and future generations to a healthy environment and to sustainable development: the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters, also known as the ‘Escazú Agreement.’

It is therefore clear that although the right to a healthy environment was not included in the UDHR (mainly because it was adopted long before the birth of the international environmental movement in the 1960s), States, working individually and regionally, have nonetheless taken significant steps to respect, promote and protect this right in practice. According to the UN Special Rapporteur, speaking to members of the Third Committee in New York, it is now time for the UN to catch up and follow suit – thereby further amplifying national and regional progress.

In terms of possible next steps, the Special Rapporteur recognised the important work of his predecessor, John Knox, to clarify and set down the normative content of the right to a clean and healthy environment. Building on this, he proposed five options to take forward UN recognition:

  1. A new international treaty.
  2. A new optional protocol to an existing international human rights covenant.
  3. A new international covenant.
  4. A GA resolution (like the one passed in 2010 on the right to water and sanitation)
  5. A UN declaration (soft law).

The Universal Rights Group has been a long-term supporter and advocate for exploring and understanding the relationship between human rights and the environment (and climate change), and of declaring a new universal right to a healthy environment. See, for example, recent blogs published on these subjects by John Knox, Marcos A. Orellana, Director of the environment and human rights program at Human Rights Watch, and by URG’s Geneva office.

Growing international support

The day before his speech to the GA, the Special Rapporteur spoke during a panel debate alongside John Knox, the Executive Secretary of ECLAC, Alicia Barcena, the Co-Executive Director of AIDA, Astrid Puentes; Litigation Counsel for Greenpeace International, Kristin Casper, and Costa Rica’s UN Permanent Representative, Ambassador Rodrigo Alberto Carazo Zeledon.

Knox presented a Framework on Principles of Human Rights and the Environment, developed during his mandate and presented to the Human Rights Council earlier this year. He noted that his last report to the Council had urged recognition of the right to a healthy environment, and a subsequent Council resolution had renewed the Special Procedures mandate for another three years. At the same time, UN Environment recently announced a new Environmental Rights Initiative, which will promote rights-based approaches to environmental policymaking.

In addition to these developments at the international level, panellists also noted national and regional gains. The Costa Rican Ambassador described how a push for the connection between human rights and the environment in Costa Rica led to this right becoming a cornerstone of the country’s constitution, and now a cornerstone of public policy.

Panellists also discussed the Esacuz Agreement, signed earlier this year by fifteen Latin American countries. Astrid Puentes also noted the contribution of the inter-American Court of Human Rights, as well as domestic courts, that have begun to assert the right to environment in various landmark cases.

Other panellists remarked on the potential benefits of formal UN recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Notwithstanding the above-mentioned national and regional advances, it was noted that environmental rights are often seen as third generation rights, and that official UN recognition provide a significant boost to human rights, especially of the most vulnerable in society, and to the global natural environment.


Featured photo: David Boyd Addresses Third Committee; 34th meeting – General Assembly, 73rd session, Screenshot from UN Web TV.

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