The end of the beginning: General Assembly recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group R2E, Thematic human rights issues

This article was originally published on Open Global Rights on February 1, 2024. The original article is accessible here.

The UN Human Rights Council’s recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a political declaration that paves the way to establishing its legal meaning.

In October 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a resolution to recognise the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The HRC invited the General Assembly (GA) to consider the matter, setting the ball rolling toward full UN recognition of this universal right.

Though the HRC’s recognition of the right was undoubtedly a historic achievement, questions remained about how the GA would respond, spurred by abstentions by India, Russia, China, and Japan and vocal opposition from the likes of the United States (which was not a member of the HRC at the time) and the United Kingdom (which voted in favor, yet expressed significant doubts about the value and enforceability of the right). Would the GA move to adopt a resolution, and if so, how would key countries (including those that are not members of the HRC but are members of the GA) vote?

In truth, there was never much doubt that UN member states would vote overwhelmingly in favor should the core group on human rights and the environment (Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland) move to table a draft text in New York. There were, nevertheless, several important issues to consider.

Most UN discussions about the relationship between human rights and the environment over the past decade had taken place in Geneva, not New York; consequently, delegates at UN headquarters were relatively unaware of the key issues. A second concern was the vote count, as the recognition of a universal right carries real political weight only when it receives the overwhelming support of UN member states. A third question concerned what form GA recognition should take: should it be a simple resolution endorsing HRC Resolution 48/13 or a second substantive text?

Over the course of the nine months between the HRC’s adoption of the resolution and its eventual adoption by the GA, there was a sustained effort by various stakeholders to raise awareness on the issue at the Human Rights Council and on how delegations in New York should proceed. The initiative included an expert seminar organised by the Universal Rights Group (URG), UNEP, and the special rapporteur on human rights and the environment in partnership with New York University. Another event, the 2022 Glion Human Rights Dialogue (Glion VIII) on the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment and its meaning for states, rights-holders, and nature, was organised by Switzerland and Liechtenstein with the support of the URG.

As the 76th session continued, calls for GA recognition grew louder. In July, a group of special rapporteurs urged the GA to recognise that living in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a fundamental human right. This move was followed by a call for action by UNEP executive director Inger Anderson “in light of the triple planetary crisis which threatens present and future generations and undermines almost every other recognised right.”

UN General Assembly adopts the resolution

On July 28, 2022, Costa Rica introduced, on behalf of the core group, a GA draft resolution entitled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” co-sponsored by more than 100 states. Noting that calls for recognition of the right at the international level had grown stronger over recent years, the Costa Rica representative highlighted the urgent need for the international community to respond. However, prior to voting on the text, several delegations (e.g., Pakistan and Russia) underscored that the resolution would represent a political declaration rather than the legal recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Relatedly, they noted that there is no shared international understanding as to the content and scope of the right.

Soon afterward, the resolution was adopted by recorded vote, with 161 in favor, none against, and eight abstentions. The member states that abstained were China, Russia, Syria, Iran, Belarus, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Kyrgyzstan. Subsequently, one abstaining state, Kyrgyzstan, and two states that did not vote, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Seychelles, informed the secretariat that they had intended to vote in favor. Interestingly, India and Japan, which had abstained during voting on the earlier HRC resolution, joined those voting in favor at the GA, though India disassociated itself from the relevant provision recognising the right to a healthy environment. The United States, following long and drawn-out discussions in Washington, voted in favor. It was a historic first for the United States—the first “new” right it had supported at the UN in over 50 years.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming vote in favor of adopting the resolution, a number of supporting states added important caveats after the vote. First, Poland, Norway, and New Zealand concurred with Pakistan’s earlier comment that the resolution is a “political declaration” and not an international legal affirmation of the right. Building on this point, India clarified that “General Assembly resolutions in themselves do not create binding obligations” and that “recognition of a new human right can only happen within the framework of a treaty or convention where State parties explicitly commit to such a new human right and undertake corresponding obligations.”

Further, in a detailed position it released subsequently, the United States clarified its stance that “the right to a healthy environment has not yet been established as customary international law [and] is not provided by treaty law.” The UK also stated that a universal right can only be said to be properly recognised following intergovernmental negotiations over a new treaty—i.e., “the usual formation of international human rights law.” Importantly, the United States and Canada joined the UK in expressing their willingness to participate in intergovernmental negotiations to clarify these questions.

These are clearly important points of debate, as they go to the heart of how the UN recognises “new” universal human rights. It is true that for a universal right to have real legal meaning, it is necessary to clarify the scope and content of that right and the corresponding obligations of states. However, it defies logic to argue that states could—or ever would—jump straight into intergovernmental negotiations over a new human rights instrument without the preliminary step of political recognition. It is also historically illiterate, as nearly every right protected under the international human rights instruments was first declared politically through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Speaking shortly after adoption, UN secretary-general António Guterres welcomed the General Assembly resolution as a “historic” and “landmark development” that demonstrates that member states can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Notwithstanding, he warned that adoption of the twin HRC and General Assembly resolutions was “only the beginning” and urged states to continue working “to make the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a reality for everyone, everywhere.”

Picture credit: Alejandro Ospina

Share this Post