Speaking ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June, the head of UN Environment* and the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment** issued a statement urging the United Nations to recognise the human right to a healthy environment.
“We believe that the historic moment has arrived for the United Nations to recognise the human right to a healthy environment at the global level.
The interdependence between human rights and the environment has become undeniable. A healthy environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and development. At the same time, the exercise of human rights such as information, participation, remedy, and freedom of expression and association, is critical for the protection of a healthy environment.
Unfortunately, the links between human rights and the environment are often most evident when environmental harm causes illness, destruction, and death. Over one million children die every year as a result of air and water pollution alone, and climate change and the loss of global biodiversity threaten present as well as future generations.
Our knowledge of new threats is growing – for example, the rising tide of plastic pollution demands greater attention and an effective response.
At the same time, those who promote and protect the environment are at an increasing risk, with an average of four environmental defenders killed every week, somewhere around the world.
To achieve sustainable development, it is necessary for us to recognise the fundamental importance of protecting the environment and of the rights that depend on it.
More than 100 States have already included the right to a healthy and sustainable environment in their national constitutions. Many more have recognised it in legislation or in regional agreements. The right is also understood to be inherent in other human rights, including rights to life, health and an adequate standard of living.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted resolutions emphasising the interdependence of human rights and the environment, and in March of this year renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for another three years. At the same time, UN Environment announced a new Environmental Rights Initiative, which will promote rights-based approaches in environmental policy.
The time has come for the United Nations to take the next step, which so many of its members have already taken individually.
Recognising the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment would not solve all environmental problems. But it would make clear that a healthy environment is on the same level of importance as other human rights and that, like other rights, it must be fulfilled in order for all people to enjoy lives of dignity, equality and freedom.
Recognition of the right could take various forms, including the adoption of a resolution by the General Assembly. The adoption of a resolution recognising the right would follow the path taken by the rights to water and sanitation, which were recognized by the General Assembly in 2010.”
John H. Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, will submit a report to the UN General Assembly on this to be presented in October 2018.
* Erik Solheim, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme
** The UN Human Rights Council appointed Mr. John H. Knox in 2012 to serve as Independent Expert, and reappointed him in 2015 as Special Rapporteur on human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The Council requested him, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University in the United States, to clarify the application of human rights norms to environmental protection, and to identify best practices in the use of human rights obligations in environmental policy-making.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.
This year, 2018, is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rights: www.standup4humanrights.org.