UN General Assembly adopts resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment

UN General Assembly adopts resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment

On 28 July the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that recognises the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.  The resolution passed with 161 votes in favour and 8 abstentions.  The substantive parts of the resolution do not provide specific details as to the content of the right.  The resolution affirms that realising the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment requires full implementation of existing international obligations concerning environmental law.  In meeting these obligations, the resolution calls on all stakeholders, including states, international organisations, and businesses to take action for bringing about a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.

The resolution comes on the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the first significant multilateral instrument recognising the human impact of climate change.  The UN Human Rights Council adopted the mandate for an Independent Expert on human rights and the environment in 2012.  This mandate evolved into a Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in 2015.  A Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change was established by the Human Rights Council in October 2021.  The General Assembly Resolution builds upon the work already undertaken by these special mechanisms, including the Sustainable Development Goals, and confirms the wide breadth of multilateral obligations and principles dedicated to climate change and environmental protection. 

The Resolution is a political statement from the UN General Assembly, so it does not create specific legal obligations for the member states.  During the discussion of the Resolution, a number of states repeated this fact seeking to make clear that no new human right or international legal obligation had been created.  Russia spoke first on this point explaining that there is no globally agreed definition of “a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” and that obligations in this area are for States themselves to determine in the absence of an accepted treaty defining the human right.  

This position overlooks the political and moral support the Resolution gives by showing the global support for the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.  In introducing the resolution, Costa Rica spoke of the accepted global understanding that climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are all threats to human well-being around the world.  By placing the human dimension as a focal point for action, Costa Rica spoke of how the Resolution will support domestic law and policy, a counter-point to the position of Russia and others.  In particular, the resolution seeks to ensure that the most vulnerable in society - women, youth, indigenous groups - have their situations concerning climate change recognised by policymakers. 

The impact of the resolution will be most significant in the ongoing work of the Special Rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council addressing climate change and the environment.  In their work, they have been providing extensive evidence of national legislation and policies that is supportive of the human dimension in addressing climate change.  As the Special Rapporteurs continue to report on how states are taking action in support of the human rights to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, further evidence and examples of good practice and innovative policies can be widely shared through multilateral institutions.  This will be especially important for the upcoming UN Climate Change conferences (Egypt 2022, UAE 2023) as all participants now have an agreed reference point for policy and action. 


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