UN General Assembly declares access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment a universal human right

Inherent and Inalienable

UN General Assembly declares access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment a universal human right

The United Nations General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York City. (Basil D Soufi/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a new resolution affirming that every human has the right to access a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The final vote tally was 161 in favor of the resolution, with eight countries abstaining from the vote: China, the Russian Federation, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, and Ethiopia.

The resolution was put forth by member states Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland last summer. They argued that the issue falls under the jurisdiction of existing international laws and the impacts of climate change—land degradation, misuse of natural resources, pollution, chemical waste, and biodiversity—are all at risk, which jeopardizes all human rights in some capacity.

Last year a similar sentiment was put forth by the Human Rights Council, the inter-governmental body within the UN concentrated on issues related to the “promotion and protection” of human rights across the world. However, the concept was first presented at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which declared that people have a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” and thus began a now decades-long fight to make the environment an agenda priority for the international community.

A press statement released by the UN explains the implications of the latest declaration, stating that it addresses three grave issues the planet is currently grappling with: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, all of which are matters that infringe on already accepted human rights, such as the right to food and housing.

It develops a groundwork for countries to begin taking responsibility for their actions, as they relate to climate change and the environment and also to address issues such as environmental justice.

“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all.”

In his statement Guterres was careful to add that the declaration “is only the beginning” and it is now the responsibility of member states to see to its implementation, to ensure access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment truly is “a reality for everyone.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also praised the monumental decision and offered a similar thought to the Secretary General: “Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now,” she said.

“It emphasizes the underpinning of legal obligations to act, rather than simply of discretionary policy. It is also more effective, legitimate and sustainable,” Bachelet added.