Right to a Healthy Environment

“The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights.”

In October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council recognized “the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights.” In July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a similar resolution, declaring access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment to be a universal human right. The General Assembly connected that right to state obligations under the Paris Agreement by observing that “the promotion of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment requires the full implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements under the principles of international environmental law.” On March 23, 2023, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution reaffirming the right to a healthy environment and calling on states to take steps to “respect, protect and fulfill” that right.

Several regional human rights treaties also protect this right in various forms:

  • Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that “all people shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has held that this “imposes clear obligations upon a government. It requires the state to take reasonable and other measures to prevent pollution and ecological degradation, to promote conservation, and to secure an ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources.”
  • The 1988 Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights (the Protocol of San Salvador) states that “everyone shall have the right to live in a healthy environment.”
  • Both the Arab Charter on Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration include the right to a healthy environment as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.

On September 29, 2021, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe presented a draft of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which would make the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment enforceable in all countries that have ratified the convention. The Council of Europe has yet to act on that proposal.

At the national level, more than 100 countries have amended their constitutions to include the right to a healthy environment, while more than 100 have enacted legislation articulating such a right. A number of individual states in the United States have also amended their constitutions to include the right to a healthy environment.

On September 27, 2022, the Council of Europe recommended that all member states “actively consider recognising at the national level [the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment] as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights and is related to other rights and existing international law.”

Photo Credit: The sky turns orange in San Francisco as a result of California wildfires during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Climate change is expected to increase the severity and frequency of devastating wildfires and deadly disease outbreaks. Photo by Christopher Michel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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