Is there a human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment?
Building on earlier work by the Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms have been actively engaged on the topic of human rights and the environment. They have made enormous progress in clarifying and setting down the human rights normative framework as it relates to the environment and to environmental protection. In particular, they have demonstrated that environmental harm (including that caused by climate change) has enormous negative implications for the enjoyment of human rights, especially for the most vulnerable in society, and that, conversely, human rights obligations and principles can help guide better environmental policymaking at international- and national-level. In parallel, the Council and its mechanisms have also drawn increasing attention to individuals working at the interface of human rights and environmental protection: environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs).
This progress led the first Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, to use his last speech to the Council as mandate-holder to urge the international community to consider the next logical step in this process: formal UN recognition of the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. In doing so, the UN would be reflecting the growing practice of States – well over a hundred countries have now recognised the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (in different formulations) in law; as well as the reality in various regional human rights systems (e.g. Africa, Latin America). The current UN Special Rapporteur, David Boyd, has made this drive for recognition of ‘the right to environment’ one of his key priorities.
To kick-start discussions at the UN about the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, the Council core group on the subject (made up of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland), with the support of the Universal Rights Group (URG), the Geneva Academy, UNICEF, UNEP, and OHCHR, will convene an expert seminar to consider the growing recognition of the ‘right to environment’ around the world, to understand the value of this right for individual rights-holders and for the environment, and to answer the question: should the right be recognised at UN-level (by the Council and then by the General Assembly)?
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