Words by Katie Puckett
“Healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are the foundation of all life on Earth. It’s difficult to argue that these should be protected using conventional human rights approaches, but that’s clearly an integral part of the right to a healthy environment”
David R Boyd
This formalizes something that already exists in national laws. What difference will UN recognition make?
There are now more than 155 countries where the right to a healthy environment enjoys legal recognition, meaning it’s either in the constitution or environmental laws, or it’s in regional human rights treaties that those countries are parties to. So it has this widespread recognition at the domestic and regional levels, but had never been recognized at a global level until last October. That’s why the Human Rights Council resolution was a historic breakthrough. The idea is that it will act as a catalyst for those countries that have not yet recognized it — Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, China, Japan — to move forward, and also for those countries that recognize it but have more work to do to give it a higher priority.
Back in 1948, nobody thought about putting the right to a healthy environment into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But since the 1970s, this idea has found widespread acceptance — and because it’s been around for decades, we can see what a difference it has made. So we know, for example, that countries where the right to a healthy environment is recognized have passed stronger environmental laws and policies. They do a better job of implementing and enforcing those laws and policies, and they have higher levels of public participation in environmental decision-making.
Most importantly, the right to a healthy environment is correlated with better environmental performance. Countries that recognize this right have reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions more quickly, and provided safe drinking water to a higher proportion of their population. There’s a really compelling body of evidence that this makes a difference.
What does this cover that isn’t covered by other human rights like the right to life, the right to health, the rights of the child?
The right to a healthy environment is so comprehensive in scope that it covers things that other human rights are just not well equipped for. One perfect example is nature. Healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are the foundation of all life on Earth. It’s difficult to argue that these should be protected using conventional human rights approaches, but that’s clearly an integral part of the right to a healthy environment. Think of a problem like air pollution, which causes approximately 7,000,000 premature deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization. From a scientific perspective, and from a human rights perspective, it’s very challenging to link any individual’s respiratory illness, asthma or heart disease to exposure to air pollution because all of these diseases have multiple causes. So the right to health or the right to life are difficult to apply in this context. But with the right to a healthy environment, you don’t have to prove that your personal asthma is caused by that factory down the road. You can just point out that the government has set a standard for air quality, and that it’s not meeting that standard or not taking any action to improve air quality: that’s a violation of my right to a healthy environment.
There’s a very heavily polluted region of South Africa called the Mpumalanga Highveld, with a number of coal mines and coal-fired power plants. In 2019, two citizens groups brought a lawsuit arguing that the government’s inaction and failure to improve air quality in that area violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment, under Article 24 of the South African constitution. In March 2022, the High Court in South Africa agreed with those groups that the government’s failure to act is definitely a violation of that right, and it ordered the government to do a number of things, including enact regulations within 12 months to improve air quality in the Mpumalanga Highveld. That’s a tangible, concrete example of how people can use their right to a healthy environment to hold governments accountable and to improve the quality of life in their communities.