In September and October 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will meet for its 48th Regular Session (HRC48). Its agenda is a full one: in the last year, the impacts of the pandemic, a coup in Myanmar, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, brutal political crackdowns in Belarus, and ongoing situations in Syria, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Burundi leave many millions of people at severe risk of serious abuses of their human rights. As the UN’s primary forum on human rights matters, it is the task of the HRC to seek to ameliorate the parlous state of human rights around the globe. Fighting the fires currently burning will require the energy, effort and goodwill of all HRC member States, and all the member States of the UN in general.
Yet at HRC48, the Council will also have the opportunity to look to the future. In a bold, and vitally important, move, the governments of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland will jointly lay a proposal before the HRC, which could be a crucial turning point in the protection of human rights, and global efforts to protect people from the worst effects of the climate crisis.
At HRC48, the Council has the opportunity to recognise that individuals have a human right to a healthy environment.
It is established beyond doubt that human rights and the health of the environment are inextricably bound together. As the World Lawyers’ Pledge on Climate Action recognises:
Human rights and environmental protection are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, States must take all adequate and necessary preventative measures against climate change caused by both public and private actors in order to protect fundamental human rights. On the other hand, effective protection of human rights, including indigenous peoples’ rights, is indispensable to empower climate defenders to protect their communities, their environments, and our planet.World Lawyers’ Pledge on Climate Action
John Knox, then the HRC’s Special Rapporteur on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, captured the interrelationship between human rights and the health of the environment particularly beautifully. In his 2018 Report to the HRC at its 37th Session, Knox offered a set of framework principles on human rights and the environment. His first and second principles reflect the commonality, the necessary relationship, between protecting human rights, and protecting the natural environment:
Framework principle 1: States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.
Framework principle 2: States should respect, protect and fulfil human rights in order to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.Report of the Special Raporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, 24 January 2018
Now, ahead of HRC48, the current Special Rapporteur and Lead Signatory of the Lawyers’ Climate Pledge, Dr David Boyd, continues to strongly support the calls for the HRC to formally recognise the human right to a healthy environment.
Among many other organisations which have added their voices to the campaign are Amnesty International, the Universal Rights Group, and the Centre for International Environmental Law. In total, more than 1,100 civil society organisations have endorsed the call.
A Healthy Environment and the Role of Law
The recognition of the right to a healthy environment is not only long overdue, but necessary. Climate change and other sources of environmental harm threaten vast and abject human suffering, as well as untold harms to non-human animals and ecosystems. Climate change is among the most pressing and serious threats to human rights, such as the right to life (and in particular life with dignity), health, bodily integrity, adequate water and sanitation, as well as to many other socio-economic and cultural rights. Climate change is also a multiplier of existing threats to international peace and security, and a threat to the stability of States, regions, and communities. Climate-related disasters such as food and water scarcity, sea-level rise, desertification, and extreme weather events will contribute to forced migration on scales never seen before. Mass climate migration risks leaving vast numbers of people in situations of extreme vulnerability and is likely to overstrain the abilities of States, international organisations, and NGOs to provide humanitarian relief.
Moreover, it is a tragic but unavoidable truth that the many harms of climate change will hit the most vulnerable individuals and communities first and hardest. The most vulnerable people and communities worldwide, as well as the most vulnerable within each of our societies, will bear the brunt of an evil which they, in general, did the least or little to cause. The inequity of that situation should shame us all.
The recogniton of a right to a healthy environment will offer communities and individuals a legal means to challenge the actions and inactions of Sates.
We must be realistic: there are no magic bullets when it comes to climate change. Science and technology will improve, but will not fix our broken and unbalanced earth system; we can mitigate but not wipe out the harms the climate crisis will visit on people, communities, and ecosystems; and legal responses will be developed which help to protect individuals and communities, but will always lag behind what we need. Certainly, the recognition of a right to a healthy environment, too, is not a fix-all to the harms that climate change is doing, and those to come.
But it is a vital step.
The recognition of a right to a healthy environment will offer communities and individuals a legal means to challenge the actions and inactions of States. It formalises and adds to the legal basis for climate action that has been established in domestic cases such as Urgenda in the Netherlands, and so strengthens the ability of young people, vulnerable groups, and concerned citizens to demand greater action from their governments. It would also strengthen opportunities for redress, either for those groups whose homes and lives have been devastated by climate-driven weather, sea-level rise, or other harms, and for groups forced to flee ahead of the quick and slow-onset harms of the climate crisis. In other words: recognition would help to realise the potential of the law as a tool to combat the climate crisis and other environmental harms.
Individuals have a right to live in a healthy environment. The World Lawyers’ Pledge on Climate Action is proud to support the calls for the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment. The time is now.