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UNGA Recognizes Right to Clean Healthy and Sustainable Environment

Photo Salam Rajesh

The UNGA resolution looks at the solution-finding pathway wherein Governments shall hopefully frame policies that shall examine critically the current ‘pathway to destruction by man’s own hands’

By Salam Rajesh


The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a significant resolution late last month which seeks to recognize the Right to Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment as a “Human Right”. The resolution, adopted on 28 July, was voted by 161 countries in its favour with none against it. Eight Member States – Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Syria – abstained from voting.

The resolution (A/76/L.75) affirmed that the “Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment is related to other rights and existing international law”. The resolution emphasized that it required the full implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) under the principles of international environmental law for the resolution to be effective.

The resolution was originally proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland, and later co-sponsored by more than 100 countries. Following the adoption of the resolution, the UNGA called upon States, international organizations, businesses, and other stakeholders to “scale up efforts” to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd noted that while not legally binding, the UNGA resolution can serve as catalyst for action. He observed that the 2010 UNGA resolution on the human rights to water and sanitation resulted in “a cascade of positive changes that have improved the lives of millions of people”, and hoped that the recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment would similarly “increase and improve people’s quality of life all over the planet”.

The UNGA resolution is based on a similar text, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2021, which represented the first formal recognition at the global level of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

The UN communiqué noted that during introduction of the resolution text at the UNGA meeting, the Costa Rican representative laid emphasis on the context of a global level triple crisis of ‘climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution’, and that the universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment could provide “a powerful and effective response that could catalyze a transformative change”.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres observed that the resolution was a landmark development and it would help in reducing the environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women, and Indigenous Peoples, and accelerate the implementation of Member States’ environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.

UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen said that the resolution was “a victory for people and the planet”, and the full implementation of the Right will “empower action on the triple planetary crisis, provide a more predictable and consistent global regulatory environment for businesses, and protect those who defend nature”.

Andersen noted that the resolution took five decades to take shape, from a ‘foothold’ in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration where Member States recognized the Right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being”.

The UNEP’s Executive Director further observed that many countries have integrated the Right into their constitutions, national laws, and regional agreements, and in 2021, the UN Human Rights Council elevated its status to that of “universal recognition”.

It may be recalled that in June earlier this year, UN Member States and stakeholders issued a global call to recognize and implement the Right to Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment as part of the outcome of the Stockholm+50 meeting, which included ten recommendations ‘for accelerating action towards a healthy planet for the prosperity of all’.

The global community has hailed the landmark resolution, terming that the UNGA resolution could prompt countries “to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in constitutions and regional treaties,” which “would allow people to challenge environmentally destructive policies under human rights legislation”.

The UNGA resolution comes at a critical juncture when large tracts of pristine natural landscapes – the rich tropical rainforests in the Amazon basin and in Southeast Asia, for instance – are being bulldozed through by industries, companies and those in the extractive business for exploiting the natural resource rich areas for their ‘personal gains’ without the least concern of the negative impacts upon land, forests, wetlands, and the people.

For decades, all over the world, there has been an ongoing tussle between States and Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) on the relatively destructive activities of both States and private parties’ intrusion into pristine landscapes, scrapping everything bare in their pursuits for minerals, oil and gas, and in extending the highly commercialized cattle farming amongst other activities.

The UN had emphasized time and again on its 2030 and 2050 agendas that stress on finding the pathway to re-greening planet Earth so that all life forms on this planet can resist the impacts of global warming and other climatic phenomena that have ravaged land and made life terrible for many.

The recent destructive wildfires in Australia and the western parts of the United States, and deaths from extreme heat waves, are being described as evident of the drastic impacts of changing climatic conditions for the worse. These, and with other lurid examples of destructive cyclonic storms, typhoons, earthquakes, heat waves, and so forth, the UN Secretary-General had recently described the situation as grim and that “the world is headed for a collective suicide” unless the situation can be reversed.

The UNGA resolution looks at the solution-finding pathway wherein Governments shall hopefully frame policies that shall examine critically the current ‘pathway to destruction by man’s own hands’ and take decisions post-haste to re-examine the effects of anthropogenic activities in the wilderness – for the worst.

The UN’s definition of IPLCs as possibly one of the best custodians of forest and wetland ecosystems is again one of the possible pathways to achieving success in meeting the goals outlined in its 2030 and 2050 agendas. To make it more meaningful, States have to rope in IPLCs as co-partners in management of the natural landscapes – forests, wetlands, peatlands, grasslands, mangroves, reefs, and many more.

The respect of the fundamental rights of the Indigenous peoples, and more importantly now the respect of the Rights of the Natural Environment, is indeed the solution-finding pathway that the UN is seeking to address climate change adaptation targets vis-à-vis the Paris Climate Agreement and the other international agreements and covenants.

(The writer is honorary member, ICCA Consortium and member, IUCN CEESP. He can be reached at [email protected])

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