The UN has just proclaimed a universal human right to a healthy, sustainable environment – this is where resolutions like these can lead

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Joel E Correia, University of Florida

(THE TALK) Climate change is already affecting much of the world’s population, with alarmingly high temperatures from the Arctic to Australia. Air pollution from forest fires, vehicles and industries threatens human health. Bees and pollinators are dying in unprecedented numbers, which can lead to changes in crop production and food availability.

What do these have in common? They represent the new frontier of human rights.

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on July 28, 2022 to declare the ability to live in “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” a universal human right. It also called on countries, companies and international organizations to increase their efforts to make this a reality.

The Declaration is not legally binding – countries can vote for a Declaration of Rights without actually supporting those rights in practice. The language is also vague, leaving up to interpretation what a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is.

Yet it is more than moral posturing. Resolutions like these have always laid the foundation for effective treaties and national laws.

I am a geographer specializing in environmental justice, and much of my research examines the relationships between developmental environmental change, natural resource use, and human rights. Here are some examples of how similar resolutions have opened doors to stronger action.

How the concept of human rights expanded

In 1948, after World War II, the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to the atrocities of the Holocaust. The declaration was not legally binding, but established a baseline of rights intended to ensure the conditions of basic human dignity.

This first set of rights included the right to life, worship, freedom from slavery, and a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.

Since then, the scope of human rights has expanded, including several treaties that are legally binding on the countries that have ratified them. The UN Conventions against Torture (1984) and Racial Discrimination (1965) and on the Rights of Children (1989) and Persons with Disabilities (2006) are just a few examples. Today, the International Charter of Human Rights also includes binding covenants on economic, cultural, civil and political rights.

Today’s triple planetary crisis

The world has changed dramatically since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, perhaps most notably in terms of the scale of the environmental crises facing people around the world.

Some experts argue that the “triple planetary crisis” of human-caused climate change, widespread biodiversity loss and unrestrained pollution now threatens to transcend the planetary boundaries needed for safe life on Earth.

These threats can undermine the right to life, dignity and health, as can air pollution, contaminated water and pollution from plastics and chemicals. That is why proponents called for the UN to declare a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The UN has discussed the environment as a global concern for over 50 years, and several international treaties have addressed specific environmental concerns during that time, including binding agreements to protect biodiversity and close the ozone hole. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming is a direct and legally binding result of the long struggles that followed the initial declarations.

The resolution on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was passed unanimously, although eight countries abstained: Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Syria.

The human right to water

Voluntary human rights declarations can also help change government policies and give people new political tools to demand better conditions.

The human right to water is one of the strongest examples of how UN resolutions have been used to shape state policy. The resolution, adopted in 2010, recognizes that access to sufficient amounts of safe drinking water and sanitation is necessary for the realization of all other rights. Diarrheal diseases, mainly caused by unsafe drinking water, kill half a million children under the age of 5 every year.

Human rights activists used the resolution to pressure the Mexican government to reform its constitution and enact a human right to water in 2012. While the concept is still contradictory, the idea of ​​a right to water is also credited with transforming water access in marginalized communities like Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Egypt and other countries.

The rights of indigenous peoples

Another example is the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It recognizes the specific histories of exclusion, violence and exploitation suffered by many indigenous peoples around the world, as well as current human rights abuses.

The resolution outlines the rights of tribal peoples but does not recognize their sovereignty, which many criticize as limiting the scope of self-determination. However, within these limits, several countries have adopted some of their recommendations. Bolivia incorporated it into its constitution in 2009.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples discusses a right to free, prior and informed consent to development and industrial projects that would affect indigenous peoples. This has been a powerful tool for tribal peoples to demand due process through the legal system.

In Canada, Paraguay and Kenya, tribal peoples have used the resolution to win important legal victories in human rights courts with rulings that have resulted in the restitution of land and other legal gains.

tools for change

UN Declarations of Human Rights are exacting norms designed to ensure a fairer and fairer world. While statements like these are not legally binding, they can be important tools that people can use to pressure governments and private companies to protect or improve human well-being.

Change may take time, but I believe this latest human rights declaration will support climate and environmental justice around the world.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/the-un-just-declared-a-universal-human-right-to-a-healthy-sustainable-environment-heres-where-resolutions-like-this- can-lead-188060.

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