#TheTimeIsNow: Was HRC46 the moment that momentum behind UN recognition of the right to a healthy environment became unstoppable?

by Mariana Montoya and Camila Márquez Blog, Blog

The growing interest in, and movement towards, universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (R2E) reached a new crescendo at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (Council). There was a sense that momentum behind UN recognition, built over decades, has brought the world to a ‘tipping point,’ where one last push will see the dream realised – to be enduring benefit of people and planet. A number of important developments at the session help illustrate this point.

Support at the high-level segment

The first notable development relates to statements delivered during the High-Level Segment in the first week of the Council. During this segment, ministers from Costa Rica and Slovenia, amongst others, both drew attention to the urgency of universal recognition of R2E, and called their peers to support the core group’s efforts to achieve this.

For example, H.E. Mr Anže Logar, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, a member of the Core Group, affirmed that:

For building back [a] safe, healthy and sustainable environment, the globally recognised linkage between human rights and environment should become one of our common goals. Slovenia, together with other members of the core group on the subject, is stepping up its work in the process of the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment. This process is now reaching its most important stage. I call upon all countries to provide their highly valuable and needed support.

He was backed by HE Mr Rodolfo Solano Quirós, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica, who stated that:

The discussions around the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment must be given fresh impetus and a higher profile throughout the United Nations system […] This legal recognition to the right to a clean and safe environment is a key element of national and global action aimed at environmental protection.

Costa Rica and Slovenia were followed by other non-core group States, who echoed the urgency of universal recognition. H.E. Mr Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, for example, affirmed that ‘that progress and social well-being cannot exist but in a healthy environment. It deserves our protection as an essential right for the whole mankind;’ while H.E. Mr Augusto Santos Silva, Minister of State and for Foreign Affairs of Portugal, stated that his country ‘recognised this right [R2E] from the dawn of our democracy and now we believe that it is time to recognise it internationally.

In a surprising yet welcome move, China also gave its backing to environmental rights. H.E. Mr Wang Yi, State Councillor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, acknowledged that to address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related universal vaccination: ‘We should take coordinated, integrated, multiparter steps to advance all aspects of human rights, in all dimensions and fields throughout the whole process. The scope of human rights is constantly evolving, the right to health and the environmental right should be given more prominence.

Other States representatives, while not explicitly joining the call for universal recognition, did refer to R2E in their speeches. For example, H.E. Mr Darren Allan Henfield, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, remarked that ‘COVID-19 clearly reveals the mutually reinforcing and interdependent nature of all human rights, including the rights to health, to life, an adequate standard of living, a healthy environment,’ while H.E. Mr Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister and Minister for iTaukei Affairs and Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Fiji, remembered that ‘the Fijian Constitution enshrines an array of civil, political, and socio-economic rights – including the right to a clean and healthy environment,’ and that ‘human health is linked to the health of our environment, including our oceans. This linkage is both obvious and significant because human beings need a clean, pollution-free environment to thrive.’

Still more high-level representatives, while not explicitly referring to R2E, referenced the close interrelationship between human rights and environmental protection, and underscored the urgency of strengthening a rights-based approach to environmental issues. For example, H.E. Ms Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, reminded colleagues that ‘the pandemic reminds us that global health and the environment are inextricably intertwined. COVID-19 has fostered grave uncertainty in our collective ability to address the climate emergency, and the far-reaching consequences felt most acutely in Small Island States. The Commonwealth is resolute in supporting Small States and other climate-vulnerable countries to protect the environment and tackle climate change which is essential if we are to address human rights.’

Similarly, H.E. Mr Agron Tare, Vice-Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania, said that ‘major human rights concerns are inequality and poverty, challenges caused by the pandemic situation, climate change, and environment;’ while H.E. Mr A.K. Abdul Momen MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, reminded delegates that ‘climate change […] is an over-arching challenge of our time. We cannot afford to view it merely as an environmental or economic issue. It has many human rights implications that deserve our serious attention […] We need to establish the idea of climate justice.’ The fact that climate change threatens human rights was also acknowledged by H.E. Mr Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany.

High-Level Segment side event, #TheTimeIsNow – The case for universal recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

A second important milestone during HRC46 was the launch, on 23 February 2021, of a new policy report entitled #TheTimeIsNow – The case for universal recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, co-authored by the current Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd; the former Special Rapporteur, John Knox, and URG’s Executive Director, Marc Limon.

The report was launched during a high-level side event organised by the URG with the support of members of the core group, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Office of the UN human rights Special Procedures. Speakers included the Foreign Ministers of Fiji, Costa Rica and the Maldives, the Ambassadors of Germany and Switzerland, and UN representatives, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Executives Directors of UNICEF and UNEP. Speakers repeatedly urged States, at the Council and the GA, to formally recognise R2E – as a critical component of fighting climate, biodiversity, air quality and global health crises. (For further information, read this blog and watch the recording of the event).

On the day of the event, the #MyPlanetMyRights campaign, with the support of URG, organised a Twitter Storm that achieved over 4,000 tweets from individuals and organisations (including UN agencies) across the world, using #TheTimeIsNow.

Joint and individual statements delivered during the item 3 general debate

A third important development was statements delivered during HRC46’s item 3 general debate. On 9 March, just a week after the #TheTimeIsNow side event and Twitter storm, global civil society once again made its position clear, when 20 organisations presented a joint statement to ‘convey […] the call endorsed by 1,100 organisations urging this Council to recognise the right of all to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.’

During the same general debate, UNEP also delivered a landmark statement on behalf of 15 UN entities, affirming that ‘The global recognition of the right to a healthy environment will support efforts to leave no one behind, ensure a just transition to an environmentally healthy and socially equitable world and realise human rights for all.’

Finally, under item 3, 69 States delivered a joint statement saying:

There is a global consensus on the degradation of the environment and the consequences it has on human life. We are all reminded by the current pandemic that the dignity, life, and health of all humans must be both protected and promoted without any discrimination. It is our belief that a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of human rights. Therefore, the possible recognition of the right at a global level would have numerous important implications on what we leave to our future generations. There are increasing calls for global recognition of such a right from States, UN representatives, experts, and civil society.

The report of the Special Rapporteur and interactive dialogue

Another impetus for the call was the presentation by Special Rapporteur Boyd of his latest thematic report to the Council. The report, on the global water crisis and its human rights impacts, emphasises that ‘A human rights perspective can serve as a catalyst for accelerated action to achieve safe and sufficient water, empower those working to protect and conserve water, and guide our actions towards a healthy and sustainable future. The Human Rights Council has the power to spark progress through a resolution recognising that every person, everywhere, has the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.’

 During the interactive dialogue that followed, State representatives again spoke of the benefits of R2E’s universal recognition. For example, H.E. Mr Evan P. Garcia, Ambassador of the Philippines to the UN in Geneva, explained that the ‘progressive development of Philippine jurisprudence over the past three decades, which has institutionalised the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in our legal and judicial system,’ has contributed to fostering the implementation of practices to tackle the water crisis in the country.

Consensus during the voting on draft resolution L6 – renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur

Finally, the adoption by consensus of draft resolution L6 pointed at a generalised awareness of the need to bringing a human rights-based approach to environmental concerns – a basic premise underlying the call for universal recognition. Although negotiations on the core group’s draft text proved sometimes difficult, with some States calling on the core group to adopt softer language on R2E, on the grounds that repeated references to R2E could be interpreted as an ‘indirect recognition’ of the right, the final resolution recognises that a human rights-based approach to the protection of the environment and biodiversity is essential to the efficacy of efforts to address the various crises currently facing the world. It also requested OHCHR to convene an expert seminar on the prevention of future pandemics.

With these important developments, it appears that the long journey towards universal recognition of R2E is now close to its end.

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