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The UN Human Rights Council recognizes the right to a healthy environment

At 3 PM on October 8, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing the right to a healthy environment as an essential human right.

This resolution is a historic victory for the protection of the environment. Although more than 150 States already recognize this right in their domestic legislation, this is the first time that an international text explicitly recognizes the right to a healthy environment.

Although this resolution is not legally binding, the near-unanimous adoption shows consensus on the importance of this right.

Leading up to the Resolution

The works on this recognition started in September 2020, when a Core Group of States on Human Rights and the Environment (Costa Rica, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland and the Maldives) started informal discussions on the possible recognition by the international community of a right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. In March 2021, 69 States issued a statement calling for a recognition of this right.

The Core Group’s initiative gathered much support: NGOs, UN Agencies, and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment David R. Boyd and his predecessors all supported the call for a resolution.

The Resolution

On October 8, 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 48/13 by a vote of 43 in favor, none against and 4 abstentions (China, India, Japan, Russia). Despite the abstentions and the United States’ absence from the Council, the adoption of this resolution reveals nearly unanimous support for the right to a healthy environment.

The Resolution’s first article recognizes “the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights”. The adoption of Human Rights Council resolution is an important first step that could have far-reaching implications for human rights and the environment. If carried before the General Assembly, this resolution could well be the catalyst for more global international recognition of the right to a healthy environment, and lead to possibly the adoption of an international covenant.


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