UN declares a healthy, sustainable environment is a human right
On July 28, 2022, member states of the United Nations General Assembly, the highest UN body, overwhelmingly voted to adopt a historic resolution recognizing that a “safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” is a human right. Prepared by five member states, including Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland, 161 nations voted in favor, with only eight countries abstaining.
The resolution comes at a critical moment as the threats of the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss accelerate. While the motion is not legally binding, it will urgently push countries, leaders, and policymakers to make changes that will positively impact the environment and human well-being.
History of the resolution
On Friday, October 8th, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council based in Geneva, Switzerland, adopted the resolution stating that all humans have a right to a sustainable, clean, healthy, and safe planet for the first time. The motion passed with 43 votes in favor and none against. Abstentions came from China, India, Japan, and Russia.
Read the resolution as adopted.
This first measure was proposed by 22 countries, including Costa Rica, Finland, Germany, Morocco, North Macedonia, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Island nations like Fiji and the Maldives were also initial backers as they are especially vulnerable to the climate crisis due to rising ocean levels.
Pushback came from the United States and the United Kingdom, with the UK voting for the resolution. The US could not vote as it is not one of the Council’s 47 members. Legal concerns were cited as the justification.
The intersection of human rights and the environment
Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile and now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement she felt “gratified" by how the motion recognizes that environmental degradation is interconnected to human rights crises and how the most vulnerable segments of the population, including women, children, and Indigenous peoples, are disproportionately affected.
"Recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is about protecting people and the planet ― the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat."
—Michelle Bachelet, UN Human Rights Chief
Currently, 13.7 million deaths per year are linked to environmental issues, according to the World Health Organization — about 24% of all global deaths annually. These are results of air pollution and chemical exposure, among other things.
Now that a clean environment is recognized as a fundamental human right, many leaders and activists hope it will serve as a starting line to push for economic, social, and environmental policies to conserve nature and protect people. Bold action is the next step to ensure the motion does its job.
The next steps
Scientists, environmentalists, and climate activists hope the resolution will profoundly affect the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) beginning on November 6th in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. World leaders will gather to discuss action toward the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Whereas many countries recognize the climate crisis in terms of mitigation, adaptation, and finance, now people must be included. As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, declares, the resolution is a message to the billions of children worldwide. She said,
“A healthy environment is your right. No one can take away nature, clean air, and water, or a stable climate from you.”