For the first time ever, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution in Geneva on October 8, 2021, recognising access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right.
This is a massive victory for environmental activists and human rights groups who have fought for this recognition for decades.
The resolution also calls on countries to work together, and with other partners, to implement this breakthrough.
“Professionally that was probably the most thrilling experience that I ever have had or that I ever will have. It was a massive team victory. It took literally millions of people, and years and years of work to achieve this resolution”, said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, who was in the room when President Nazhat Shameem from Fiji, brought down her gavel, announcing the voting results, as informed in a special UN report.
The report also noted that the resolution was unanimous with 43 votes in favour and four abstentions.
The resolution has been passed due to the efforts of at least 1,100 civil society, child, youth and indigenous people’s organizations, who have been campaigning for global recognition, implementation and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
In the last few years, the work of the Maldives and its allied States, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment and different NGOs, have been moving the international community towards the declaration of a new universal right.
"It really is historic, and it really is meaningful for everyone because we know right now that 90% of people in the world are breathing polluted air. So right off the bat if we can use this resolution as a catalyst for actions to clean up air quality, then we're going to be improving the lives of billions of people”, Boyd added.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level will support efforts to address environmental crises in a more coordinated, effective and non-discriminatory manner, help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, provide stronger protection of rights and of the people defending the environment, and help create a world where people can live in harmony with nature.
For Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) environment chief, the resolution is already having important repercussions and a mobilizing impact.
“The next step will be how we translate that on the right to clean air and whether we can push, for instance, for the recognition of WHO’S Global Air Quality Guidelines and the levels of exposure to certain pollutants at a country level. It will also help us to move certain legislation and standards at the national level”, Dr. Neira said.
The newly declared right to a healthy and clean environment will also hopefully influence positive negotiations during the upcoming UN Climate Conference COP26, in Glasgow.