Fulfilling Right to Healthy Environment: UNEP

The international community has, since the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, acknowledged that a healthy environment is linked to the enjoyment of all human rights. We saw further recognition of this link in the 1992 Rio Declaration, in the Future We Want declaration on sustainable development and in the Paris Agreement.

But when the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, in 2021 and 2022 respectively, recognized the universal human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, it was a huge leap forward. And it was a big win for millions of people buckling under the weight of the triple planetary crisis: the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss, and the crisis of pollution and waste.

This recognition has rippled throughout the world. The right has been acknowledged in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan. In the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. In the Bonn Declaration for a Planet Free of Harm from Chemicals and Waste. In the UNEP@50 High Level Political Declaration. The Human Rights Council resolutions increasingly address environmental issues, and other human rights bodies are embracing environmental issues.

We know that the right covers clean air, a safe and stable climate, and access to safe water. It covers adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, and non-toxic environments. It covers healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.

But can we say that today we are implementing the right to healthy environment? We cannot.

Most people live with dirty air and polluted water. Nature is withering, damaging food security. A destabilizing climate is bringing extreme weather. Conflicts are creating environmental carnage. UNEPs just-released preliminary assessment on the environmental impacts of the war in Gaza shows this all too clearly: water and sanitation have collapsed; and coastal areas, soil and ecosystems have been damaged and contaminated.

So, we must get busy to ensure the right is fulfilled.

First, we must strengthen and implement the many commitments already made.

Meeting every target of existing Multilateral Environmental Agreements would go a long way to delivering the right to a healthy environment. We do need to up ambition on climate change and other issues, although there is, frankly speaking, no point in making more promises if we cant deliver on those already made.

All agreements are important, but we should take special note of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework now commonly known as the Biodiversity Plan - which specifically targets the protection of environmental human rights defenders and the promotion of rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We must safeguard these groups, who face intimidation, criminalization and death when they stand up to those who would devastate nature. Indigenous Peoples traditional knowledge, customary legal systems and cultures have proved effective at conserving nature. So, we should ensure that these targets are met.

Second, we must deliver environmental justice for all.

There can be no universal human right to a healthy environment future without justice, equity and true inclusion. UNEPs 2023 Emissions Gap Report told us how countries with greater responsibility for emissions must provide financial and technical support to developing nations. UNEPs Adaptation Gap Report told us we are underfinanced and underprepared, reinforcing the sheer scale of the financing gap we need wealthy nations, the private sector, philanthropies and others to work together and address.

The Loss and Damage Fund is a step in the right direction. But we need more concrete pledges, alongside increased adaptation funding and support for low-carbon transformations in developing nations. And we need to see funding dramatically increase to Nature-based Solutions which is what UNEP and countries are aiming to do through the new Kunming Biodiversity Fund.

We also cannot deliver justice for all without inclusive and non-discriminatory participation in decision-making something UNEP is striving to do, for example in the ongoing negotiations to secure a deal to end plastic pollution.

Three, accelerate recognition into legal frameworks.

Some 161 countries legally recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions or other legal frameworks. Those that remain should follow suit. Regions can also consider new environmental rights instruments. In this regard, UNEP is supporting discussions to develop an environmental rights framework for the ASEAN region. We must also integrate environmental rights into how we monitor, review, and report under human rights treaty bodies' reviews and the Universal Periodic Review.


UNEP has, through OHCHRs Human Rights 75 Initiative, pledged to further advance the human right to a healthy environment, support environmental defenders, uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples, advance environmental justice and deliver through partnerships.

UNEP did this because the environment makes human wellbeing possible. Because we must pull together, not apart, to overcome the triple planetary crisis. Because our future depends on it.

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