David Boyd, John Knox, Marc Limon

This new policy report tells the story of international discussions on human rights and environment, human rights and climate change, and the push for the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (R2E), describing the broad normative contours of such a right, and explaining the benefits, for humanity, the environment and the climate, that would accrue from universal recognition. The report ends with a simple recommendation to UN member States: to make a final push to secure universal recognition of R2E, via twin resolutions at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in, and movement towards, universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (R2E). Over one hundred national constitutions and several regional human rights agreements now recognise this right. This important historical shift is based on a recognition that a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is necessary to human dignity, equality and freedom. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of States already recognise some form of the human right to a healthy environment, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have yet to do so. Importantly, this situation might be about to change.

Over the past couple of years, senior UN figures (e.g., the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Executive Director of UNICEF and the Executive Director of UNEP), a number of States, civil society organisations and UN independent experts, including the current and former Special Rapporteurs on human rights and the environment, have joined a growing chorus of support for universal recognition. During the 44th session of the Human Rights Council, for example, the High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, affirmed that ‘It is time for global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment – recognition that can lead to stronger policies, at all levels, to protect our planet and our children.’

Moreover, in 2020 the Council’s core group on human rights and environment delivered two important statements that point towards the likelihood of universal recognition of R2E in 2021. The first was issued by Ambassador Stadler Repnik of Slovenia, who noted that the core group had initiated ‘a series of informal consultations on a possible global recognition’ of R2E. ‘I sincerely believe,’ she continued, ‘that the time has come to act together and to act now.’ This was followed, in September, by a joint statement at the Council, delivered by Costa Rica and others, reaffirming their belief ‘that a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights […] Therefore, a possible recognition of the right at a global level could have numerous important implications on our and future generations.’

With these historic steps, the international community has come within touching distance of what would be the capstone of a decades-long endeavour: the elaboration, declaration and UN-level recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

It seems clear that the momentum built over the past five decades, coupled with the large number of countries that have already recognised R2E, and the greater public awareness of the crucial inter-relationship between human rights and the environment that has emerged due to the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, together mean #TheTimeIsNow.

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