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The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Every individual deserves to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Environmental degradation, climate change, and unsustainable development pose serious threats to current and future generations. The right to a healthy environment is a strategic tool to address these threats. What does this right protect, what is its actual scope today, and what is at stake for environmental protection?

I. Components of the Right to a Healthy Environment

Although there is no universally accepted definition of the right to a healthy environment, this right is generally understood to include substantive rights, i.e., fundamental rights defining basic obligations and protections, and procedural rights, i.e., methods and processes enabling their application and enforcement.

 

Substantive Rights:

  • Right to clean air

  • Right to a safe climate

  • Right to access clean water and sanitation

  • Right to healthy and sustainably produced food

  • Right to a non-toxic environment for living, working, studying, and recreation

  • Healthy biodiversity and ecosystems

 

Procedural Rights:

  • Access to environmental information

  • Public participation in environmental decision-making

  • Access to justice and effective remedies in environmental matters

 

The specific content of these rights is based on the best available scientific evidence. They are defined by international organizations such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For example, the WHO publishes guidelines on air and water quality, while the IPCC provides reports on the actions necessary to limit global warming. Additionally, this right is closely linked to other rights, particularly the right to life, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to privacy and family life, and the right to an adequate standard of living.

II. Concrete Utility of the Right to a Healthy Environment

As highlighted by David R. Boyd, former Special Rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment, this right often serves as a catalyst for several significant benefits, including:

  • Stronger environmental laws

  • More effective environmental policies

  • Improved implementation and enforcement of these laws and policies

  • Increased levels of public participation in environmental decision-making

  • Improved access to information and justice

  • Reduced environmental injustices

 

Perhaps the most important conclusion reached by researchers is that recognizing the right to a healthy environment contributes to better human rights outcomes through improved environmental performance, including cleaner air, better access to clean water, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

In-depth studies on the right to a healthy environment have led to the following conclusions:

  • States whose constitutions enshrine the right to a healthy environment have a lower ecological footprint, are better ranked in global environmental indicator indices, are more inclined to ratify international environmental agreements, and have made faster progress in reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and greenhouse gases than states that have not adopted such provisions.

  • Constitutional environmental rights have a positive causal influence on environmental performance.

  • Constitutional environmental rights are positively linked to the increase in the proportion of populations with access to safe wastewater.

III. Recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment at International, Regional, and National Levels

 

A. International Recognition:

In 1972, during the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, states adopted the Stockholm Declaration, whose first principle mentions the right to a healthy environment and the duty to protect the environment. The universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment by the United Nations General Assembly represents a key milestone in the advocacy campaign led by environmental justice movements and civil society. The resolutions adopted respectively by the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly in 2021 and 2022 mark significant progress for this right. However, a gap is observed: this right is today primarily proclaimed in major environmental texts lacking legal value.

Alongside these major international texts with symbolic character, some international sectoral or regional conventions enshrine the right to live in a healthy environment, for a specific field or geographical area. For example, the Aarhus Convention, whose geographical scope is primarily limited to the member states of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), focuses on access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters. However, it protects in its first article "the right of each person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being."

 

B. Regional Recognition:

Regional bodies, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, also recognize this right, thereby strengthening national laws and policies and encouraging innovative jurisprudence in environmental protection. This right has been included in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981), the Protocol of San Salvador to the American Convention on Human Rights (1988), the Aarhus Convention (1998), the Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004), the Southeast Asia Declaration on Human Rights (2012), and the Escazú Agreement in Latin America (2018).

Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, Article 38 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights of 2004, and Article 11(1) of the Protocol of San Salvador to the American Convention on Human Rights all recognize the right to a healthy environment. Similarly, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration of 2012 and the Escazú Agreement aim to protect this right for present and future generations, integrating a safe, clean, and sustainable environment as an essential element of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Finally, although the right to a healthy environment is absent from the text of the European Convention on Human Rights as adopted in 1950, the Strasbourg Court has since worked to protect it indirectly through guaranteed rights, via a dynamic interpretation of the Convention. It considers, as reiterated in the case Klimaseniorinnen v. Switzerland of April 9, 2024, where the association "Senior Women for Climate Protection" complained about the inadequacy of Swiss climate policies in the face of the impacts of climate change on their health and well-being, that the right to private and family life protected under Article 8 of the Convention includes positive obligations of the State to protect individuals from serious environmental harm.

 

C. National Recognition:

The right to a healthy environment is now recognized by over 80% of United Nations member states (161 out of 193 states) through constitutions, legislation, and regional treaties. This demonstrates a broad consensus on the importance of this right globally.

 

 

IV. Obligations of States Arising from the Right to a Healthy Environment

 

A. State Obligations:

  • Adoption of appropriate constitutional, legislative, and policy reforms

  • Implementation of environmental protection laws and policies, such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans, and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans

  • Ensuring access to environmental justice and effective remedies

  • Holding companies accountable for environmental damage, regardless of where the damage occurs

  • Taking individual and collective measures through international cooperation

 

 

B. Obligations of Non-State Actors:

Companies also have responsibilities regarding human rights, including respecting rights related to a healthy environment. This involves avoiding causing or contributing to negative human rights impacts through their activities, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution.

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment marks a crucial step in the protection of human rights and the environment. By integrating substantive and procedural rights, this right, when respected, protected, and implemented, helps combat the triple planetary crisis we are facing. States and companies have clear obligations to respect and promote this right, notably through appropriate policies and access to justice. By strengthening these commitments, we can ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all, essential to the enjoyment of all other human rights.

Sources:

The Right to a Healthy Environment, a User’s Guide. David R. Boyd, former Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, 2024.

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