UN independent experts on human rights* said it is time for the United Nations to formally recognise that living in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.
“Around the world, there is a growing recognition that it is indeed a human right to live in a healthy environment,” the experts said in a joint statement* to mark World Environment Day. “Of the UN’s 193 members, 156 have written this right into their constitutions, legislation and regional treaties, and it is time for the United Nations to provide leadership by recognising that every human is entitled to live in a clean environment.
“The lives of billions of people on this planet would improve if such a right were adopted, respected, protected and fulfilled,” the UN experts said.
Nearly 50 years after the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, in which UN member states declared that people have a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” the time is ripe for concrete action, they said. They called for both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly to take action.
A surge in emerging zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, the climate emergency, pervasive toxic pollution and a dramatic loss of biodiversity have brought the future of the planet to the top of the international agenda. The experts said people increasingly understand that environmental crises damage individuals’ ability to enjoy a range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, sanitation, food, decent work, the right to development, education, culture, freedom of assembly, rights of the child and the right to live in a healthy environment.
Human rights must be put at the centre of any measures to tackle the environmental crisis, they said.
“Putting human rights at the heart of these actions clarifies what is at stake, catalyses ambitious action, emphasizes prevention, and above all protects the most vulnerable people on our planet,” the experts said. “We could, for example, truly transform our world by shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, creating a circular, waste-free economy, and moving from damaging exploitation of ecosystems to living in harmony with nature.”
Support for UN recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment is growing, said the experts. The idea has been endorsed by UN’s Secretary General António Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, as well as more than 1,100 civil society organisations from around the world. Nearly 70 states on the Human Rights Council recently added their voices to a call by the HRC’s core group on human rights and environment (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland) for such action.
“In a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year and threatens the health and dignity of billions of people, the UN can be a catalyst for ambitious action by recognising that everyone, everywhere, has the right to live in a healthy environment,” said the experts. “The time for the global recognition is now.”