Why should the UN GA support the right to a healthy environment? Answers from an expert

At the end of July, the United Nations General Assembly, the most representative body of the Organization which includes all of its 193 members, must vote on a draft resolution recognizing the right of human beings to an environment clean, healthy and sustainable.

The draft text was presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland to the Assembly last June, following the adoption of a similar text by the Human Rights Council UN man in October 2021.

The resolution recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a “human right” essential to the full enjoyment of all human rights. It calls, among other things, on States and international organizations to adopt policies and intensify their efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.

Why should the UN General Assembly support the right to a healthy environment? The question was posed to David Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

There will probably be a vote on recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This right was not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It is therefore a historic resolution that will change the very nature of international human rights law.

Why is it important that countries vote “yes” to this resolution?

It matters because in the face of the triple environmental crisis we face – rapid climate change, loss of biodiversity and the pervasive toxic pollution that kills 9 million people each year – we must transform society, we must quickly switch to renewable energy.

We also need to move to a circular economy, and we need to detoxify society, and the right to a healthy environment is one of the most powerful tools we have to hold governments to account.

General Assembly resolutions are not binding, so countries have no legal obligation to comply with them, so how could they be held accountable?

Countries have no legal obligation, but they have a moral obligation.

In 2010, the General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing for the first time the right of everyone to water and sanitation.

This resolution was also not legally binding or enforceable, but it was the catalyst for a cascade of positive change that has improved the lives of millions of people.

Indeed, countries reacted to this resolution by modifying their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws. This has been done, among others, by Costa Rica, Fiji, Mexico, Slovenia and Tunisia. And above all, the States have really made the fulfillment of their obligations in terms of the supply of drinking water a top priority.

Thereby, [par exemple] in Mexico, the government has not only recognized this right in its constitution, but has worked with rural communities to provide clean water to more than 1,000 rural communities over the past decade.

Canada has also worked with Indigenous communities to improve water and sanitation infrastructure in more than 130 communities over the past decade.

So these resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments to account in a very powerful way.

The Human Rights Council adopted the right to a healthy environment last year. Have you seen any changes at the national level since then?

I think there have been positive developments. It is certain that we speak more than ever of the right to a healthy environment.

Some countries are beginning to incorporate it into their legal systems and scores of grassroots people are using this right to argue that their government should take stronger action on climate, air quality and biodiversity. and ecosystems.

The effect is not felt overnight, but we are already beginning to see the first dividends.

What is your appeal to the countries before the vote?

Ideally, all the countries of the world would co-sponsor this resolution and then vote in favor of it. It would show that all countries in the world understand the importance of a healthy environment for the future of humanity.

Would a country vote “no”? Does the implementation of this resolution pose any problems?

Countries have different challenges. Thus, some countries have a very conservative view of human rights.

Other countries that are major oil and gas producers may have concerns about the implications of recognizing this right.

Why should the right to a healthy environment be recognized as a universal human right?
The lives of so many people on this planet are affected by the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Billions of people today breathe air so polluted that it will reduce their life expectancy by several years.

Billions of people around the world still do not have access to clean water or sufficient water. Billions of people around the world are not eating healthy, sustainably produced food, and we are all suffering from declining biodiversity.

People need to understand that biodiversity is really the foundation of life on this planet. Without the plants and trees that produce oxygen, we couldn’t breathe. Without the ecosystems that filter water, we would have very big problems.

And the reality is that we need a safe and livable climate to thrive as human beings.

This is why this right is of paramount importance. For decades, governments have promised to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency, but the right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective: they no longer beg governments to act, they demand.

What will you do if the resolution passes?

Oh ! I will jump for joy. I will be so happy and absolutely thrilled with how this will increase and improve the quality of life for people all over the planet.

Appeal within the United Nations

Other United Nations experts and Special Rapporteurs, the head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Inger Andersen, as well as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed their support for recognition of the right to a healthy environment in recent months.

Last June, the results of the Stockholm+50 conference also recommended that States “recognize and implement the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

This action is also among the priorities of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, as reflected in Our Common Program and the Call to Action for Human Rights.

It should be noted that the United Nations Special Rapporteurs are entrusted with specific thematic or national mandates by the Human Rights Council, whose headquarters are in Geneva, where they report on their investigative or monitoring missions, generally during one of the three annual ordinary sessions of the forum. Expert positions within the Council’s Special Procedures Section are honorary and their holders are not remunerated for their work.

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