New Delhi: The UN General Assembly (UNDA) on Thursday adopted a “historic” resolution declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a universal human right.
The resolution was adopted with 161 votes in favour, and eight abstentions.
Welcoming the decision the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, termed it a ‘historic’ decision and said the landmark development demonstrates that the Member States can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
Guterres underscored that however, the adoption of the resolution ‘is only the beginning’ and urged nations to make this newly recognised right ‘a reality for everyone, everywhere.
“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”, said in a statement released by the Spokesperson’s Office.
He added that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.
“The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all”, he said.
In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet hailed the Assembly’s decision and echoed the Secretary-General’s call for urgent action to implement it.
“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.
The text, originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and now co-sponsored by over 100 countries, notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements.
As per the statement, the resolution also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right – and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Mr. David Boyd, the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law.
“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act”, he said.
In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with its own historic declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concern.
It marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and ocean, and the well-being of people around the world.
Last October, after decades of work by nations at the front lines of climate change, such as the Maldives archipelago, as well as more than 1,000 civil society organisations, the Human Rights Council finally recognised this right and called for the UN General Assembly to do the same.
“From a foothold in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the right has been integrated into constitutions, national laws and regional agreements. Today’s decision elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition”, UN Environment chief, Inger Andersen, explained in a statement published this Thursday.
“The recognition of the right to a healthy environment by these UN bodies, although not legally binding— meaning countries don’t have a legal obligation to comply and is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable” said the statement.