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UNGA Recognizes Human Right to Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment
The UN General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. The UNGA calls upon States, international organizations, businesses, and other stakeholders to “scale up efforts” to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.
The resolution (A/76/L.75) notes that the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is “related to other rights and existing international law,” and affirms that its promotion “requires the full implementation” of the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) “under the principles of international environmental law.”
The UNGA adopted the resolution on 28 July 2022, by a recorded vote of 161 in favor and zero against. Eight Member States – Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, and Syria – abstained.
Originally proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland, and later co-sponsored by more than 100 countries, the UNGA resolution is based on a similar text, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2021, which represented the first formal recognition at the global level of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Introducing the text at the UNGA meeting, the representative of Costa Rica underscored that in the context of a triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, the universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment provides a “powerful” and “effective” response that could catalyze a transformative change.
Several delegations pointed to a lack of common internationally agreed understanding of the content and scope of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The representative of the Russian Federation underscored that States “can only talk about a legally recognized right after such right is recognized exclusively within international treaties.” Pakistan called the resolution “a political text, not a legal affirmation by the Assembly.”
In a statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the resolution as a “landmark development,” noting that it will help: reduce environmental injustices; close protection gaps and empower people, especially those in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women, and Indigenous Peoples; and accelerate the implementation of Member States’ environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.
Describing the resolution as “a victory for people and planet,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen said full implementation of the right will “empower action on the triple planetary crisis, provid[e] a more predictable and consistent global regulatory environment for businesses, and protect those who defend nature.”
As per Andersen, the resolution “was five decades in the making.” From a “foothold” in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, where Member States recognized the right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” she said countries have integrated the right into constitutions, national laws, and regional agreements, and in 2021, the UN Human Rights Council elevated its status to that of “universal recognition.”
More recently, in June 2022, UN Member States and stakeholders issued a call to recognize and implement the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as part of the outcome of the Stockholm+50 meeting, which included ten recommendations “for accelerating action towards a healthy planet for the prosperity of all.”
In an interview ahead of the UNGA vote, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd noted that while not legally binding, UNGA resolutions can serve as catalysts for action. He said the 2010 UNGA resolution on the human rights to water and sanitation resulted in “a cascade of positive changes that have improved the lives of millions of people,” and hoped recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment would similarly “increase and improve people’s quality of life all over the planet.” A UNEP press release suggests that the UNGA resolution could prompt countries “to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in […] constitutions and regional treaties,” which “would allow people to challenge environmentally destructive policies under human rights legislation.” [UN News Story]