The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. The UN General Assembly calls on states, international organizations, businesses and other stakeholders to “intensify their efforts” to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.
The resolution (A/76/L.75) notes that the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment “interoperates with other rights and existing international law” and affirms that its promotion requires “the full implementation” of multilateral law Environmental Agreements (MEAs) “according to the principles of international environmental law”.
The UN General Assembly adopted the resolution on July 28, 2022 with a roll-call vote of 161 in favor and zero against. Eight member states – Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Syria – abstained.
Originally proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, and later co-sponsored by more than 100 countries, the UN resolution is based on a similar text adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2021, which the was the first formal recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment on a global scale.
Introducing the text at the UN General Assembly, the Costa Rican representative stressed that in the context of a triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a “powerful” and “effective” response that could catalyze transformative change.
Several delegations pointed to a lack of a common internationally agreed understanding of the content and scope of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The representative of the Russian Federation emphasized that states “can speak of a legally recognized right only if this right is recognized exclusively in international treaties”. Pakistan called the resolution “a political text, not legal endorsement by the assembly.”
In a statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres hailed the resolution as a “groundbreaking development,” noting that it will help: Reduce environmental injustices; Closing protection gaps and empowering people, especially those in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples; and to accelerate the implementation of Member States’ environmental and human rights commitments and commitments.
The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Inger Andersen, called the resolution “a victory for people and the planet” and said full implementation of the law would be “empowering Action on triple planetary crisis provided[e] create and protect a more predictable and consistent global regulatory environment for businesses those who defend nature.”
According to Andersen, the resolution was “five decades in the making”. Starting from a “base” in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, in which member states recognized the right to “an environment of a quality conducive to life in dignity and well-being”, countries have the right in constitutions, national laws and Legislation integrates regional agreements, and in 2021 the UN Human Rights Council upgraded its status to “universal recognition”.
Most recently, in June 2022, UN member states and stakeholders issued a call to recognize and implement the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as part of the outcome of the Stockholm+50 meeting, which made ten recommendations “to accelerate action”. included on the way to a healthy planet for the good of all.”
In an interview ahead of the UN General Assembly vote, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, noted that while UN General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, they can serve as catalysts for action. He said the 2010 United Nations General Assembly resolution on the human rights to water and sanitation has resulted in “a cascade of positive changes that have improved the lives of millions of people,” and hoped that recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment would also “enhance and improve the quality of life of people around the world”. A UNEP press release suggests that the UN General Assembly resolution could prompt countries to “enshrine the right to a healthy environment […] Constitutions and regional treaties” that would “enable people to challenge environmentally destructive measures under human rights legislation.” [UN News Story]