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Major leaps for the right to a healthy environment

Photograph: Skye Hohmann / Alamy Stock, Agence: Alamy Rights Managed Mandatory Crédit: Skye Hohmann / Alam

For years now, civil society has been urging the States to universally recognize the right to a healthy environment. During the last months, support for this recognition has accelerated amongst States, agencies, and experts. 2021 is a game-changing year to achieve this international recognition.

69 States call for recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the United Nations (UN) Back in March 2021, during the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), 69 States endorsed a statement in favor of recognizing this fundamental right by the HRC. This unprecedented government statement was a historic moment. These signatories include some States that were previously reluctant to internationally acknowledge that right, such as Germany.

The statement and the list of endorsing governments are available on the Coalition for the right to a healthy environment (R2HE) page. This R2HE Coalition is leading a tremendous joint effort to advocate for international recognition of the R2HE at the UN. In September 2020, through this Coalition, more than 1,100 civil society, child, youth, and indigenous peoples’ organizations united in calling upon Member States to recognize the right to a healthy environment as soon as possible.

Global recognition is getting support from international agencies

During the same HRC session in March 2021, 15 UN agencies issued a resounding joint statement. They affirmed that “We have come together under the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, through the inspiration provided by the Council, and in response to the urgent call for action from all corners of the world to declare that the time for global recognition, implementation, and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is now.” Signatory agencies included the International Labour Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Joint Statement by UN human rights experts demanding the Right’s recognition

For World Environment Day, on June 5th, over 50 independent experts released a joint statement calling for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Led by the UN Special Rapporteur on Environment and Human Rights, David Boyd, they claimed that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment is a key to addressing the environmental crisis and protecting human rights.

Despite this right being recognized by 156 States in constitutions, legislation, and regional treaties, they flag that the UN has not yet formally recognized this right. Experts are convinced that “the UN can make a difference by recognizing that everyone, everywhere, has the right to live in a healthy environment. The time for global recognition and action is now.”

Next steps for the right to a healthy environment: what to expect?

David Boyd brilliantly lays down the different steps and foreseeable timings to achieve full recognition. “In the short-term, the goal is universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment through resolutions of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. In the medium term, the right should be incorporated into a legally binding global instrument, such as the Global Pact for the Environment first proposed by France or a Third International Covenant. Ultimately, the right should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.


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