Celebrating A/RES/76/300 at the UN General Assembly
Dear friends and colleagues
We did it again! Led by the wonderful diplomats from the core group of States supporting the human rights and environment mandate (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland), pushed forward by an amazing coalition of civil society organizations, and urged on by UN leaders and agencies, the General Assembly adopted an historic resolution recognizing the fundamental human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment on 28 July 2022! Coming just nine months after the Human Rights Council’s resolution, the GA resolution received overwhelming support: 161 votes in favour, zero against, and only 8 abstentions.
We have made history, now we must make progress.
The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment needs to be entrenched in law at the global, regional and national levels. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights gave birth to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment must be part of a legally binding global instrument—a third international covenant, an amendment to an existing covenant, or a new treaty such as the proposed Global Pact. We cannot allow this right to languish as a second-class right, granted political recognition but lacking the legal status of all other universal human rights.
Efforts are needed to ensure that this fundamental right is included in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the new plastic pollution treaty, the proposed pandemic prevention and preparedness treaty and the draft UN treaty on transnational businesses and human rights. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be systematically included in the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, as well as future General Comments and Concluding Observations published by UN treaty bodies.
H.E. Ambassador Maritza Chan of Costa Rica gave a superb speech at the UNGA introducing the resolution on behalf of the core group.
The UN resolutions should also be a catalyst at the regional level. The Council of Europe is moving towards the adoption of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, recognizing the right to a healthy environment. The Asia-Pacific region needs a legally binding human rights instrument. Civil society in Africa is pushing for a regional agreement comparable to the Aarhus Convention and the Escazú Agreement. The Escazú Agreement has come into force but still needs additional ratifications across Latin America and the Caribbean.
At the national level, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be included in constitutions and legislation. This will enable the right to be at the heart of climate and environmental action, catalyzing urgent and ambitious action, placing a spotlight on the most marginalized and vulnerable people, and proving people with a powerful tool to hold governments accountable.
We will be doing back to back visits to Portugal and Slovenia in September/October. These two States are pioneers in the recognition of the right to a healthy environment and strong advocates for its global recognition. Press conferences will be held on 27 September and 6 October, respectively, and the two reports will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2023.
Upcoming Report and Consultations
In March 2023 we will be presenting a report to the Human Rights Council on women, girls and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and environmental degradation but are also critically important actors with the capability to make enormous contributions to solving society’s sustainability challenges. The call for inputs is available here, and the deadline is 14 October 2022.
We will also host a series of consultations to gain further insights for our report. Please sign up for one of the following sessions by emailing us your name, organization and preferred time at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 November 2022 06h00 Vancouver = 09h00 New York/ 15h00 Geneva/ 16h00 Nairobi/ 18h30 Delhi
2 November 2022 09h00 Vancouver = 12h00 New York/ 18h00 Geneva/ 19h00 Nairobi/ 21h30 Delhi
3 November 2022 21h00 Vancouver = 4 November 09h30 Delhi / 12h00 Manila/ 15h00 Sydney
The Special Rapporteur will host these virtual events from his home on the west coast of Canada. Please double check the time difference between your location and Vancouver, BC!
On October 21, I will present a report to the General Assembly describing how the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment can be a catalyst for accelerated action to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The report refutes the widely held misperception that the SDGs are merely political aspirations, when in fact they are built upon a rock-solid foundation of human rights obligations. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is connected to each of the 17 SDGs in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes surprising. The following figure illustrates the extensive connections between the SDGs, environment-related targets, and international human rights instruments as well as international environmental accords.
We also published a briefing note on the “Essential elements of effective and equitable human rights and environmental due diligence legislation”. Co-authored with international human rights lawyer Stephanie Keene, this paper was motivated by the urgent need for stronger tools to prevent and remedy human rights abuses by businesses, and the window of opportunity created by proposed legislation at the national level in a number of States and at the regional level in the European Union.
Friends of the Court
Another amazing victory was announced just as this newsletter was going to press! The UN Human Rights Committee issued its decision in the case of Torres Strait Islanders against Australia. The Committee concluded that Australia violated the rights of these Indigenous people by failing to protect them against the ravages of the climate crisis. More details next time!
We are working with the Vance Centre for International Justice and lawyers from Arias in Costa Rica to finalize an amicus brief in one of the most important human rights and environment cases ever to reach the docket of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Generations of children have been poisoned by air pollution and lead emissions from a notorious smelter complex in La Oroya, Peru. This is the first pollution case where the Inter-American Court will have the opportunity to articulate the application of the right to a healthy environment, building upon its powerful advisory opinion on human rights and the environment from 2017. The Court will hear the case on 12-13 October.
Since April, we have given dozens of presentations, speeches and recorded video interventions—too many to list here. We appreciate the opportunity to participate in online events, and thank all of the organizers for their tremendous efforts to inform the public and policy-makers about the human rights implications of today’s global environmental crisis. Earlier in September, I really enjoyed a conversation with more than 140 civil society actors and academics from across Africa, organized by friends with Natural Justice. Another treat involved participating in an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Human Rights Council resolution on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment on a panel moderated by Costa Rican Ambassador Shara Duncan Villalobos, featuring Sandra Epal Ratjen, Gladys Martinez, and Marc Limon. The event also included speeches by Ambassadors Asim Ahmed (the Maldives), Anita Pipan (Slovenia), and Jürg Lauber (Switzerland), as well as closing remarks by H.E. Christian Guillermet, Vice-minister for Multilateral Affairs of Costa Rica.
In May we attended Stockholm +50, speaking at many events including the Leadership Dialogues. It was exciting to see the final outcome document make recognition and implementation of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a top priority. Kudos to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen for their passionate advocacy on behalf of the right to a healthy environment.
On the way home I stopped in Denmark to speak at a conference organized by a unique coalition of actors, led by businesses and civil society, calling for changes to the Danish Constitution to reflect the nation’s strong commitment to environmental protection. The current Constitution has not been amended since 1953, and is one of the few remaining constitutions in the world that makes no reference to the environment.
Finally, it was an honour to address the General Assembly at the UNGA President’s Moment for Nature on 19 July 2022. Perhaps not surprisingly, I urged the GA to move expeditiously to recognize the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment!
We also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:
10 August 2022
3 August 2020
29 July 2022
28 July 2022
22 July 2022
6 July 2022
4 July 2022
3 June 2022
30 May 2022
We continue to invite communications that allege violations of human rights related to environmental damage, degradation, hazards, or the fundamental rights of environmental human rights defenders. We do our best to confirm the facts, identify the relevant principles and obligations of international human rights law, and ask States, and in some cases businesses, to respond to the allegations. Often a group of special procedure mandate-holders will coordinate a joint communication. In some cases, pressure from the UN can result in positive changes, protecting both human rights and the environment. Additional information regarding submitting information is available on the mandate’s website.
The environment mandate has joined or led 52 communications thus far in 2022, which can be reviewed (including State and business responses, where received) through the search engine here (select environment mandate and limit the date range to 2022).
The devastating floods in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the sweltering heat waves, the droughts afflicting Africa, and the rise of the superstorms drive home the fact that the climate crisis is happening now, and is also a human rights crisis. The hope offered by the UN resolutions recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a vital antidote to despair. While this right is not a silver bullet that will miraculously solve our planetary crisis, it offers a vision of what we aspire towards, and a powerful tool for realizing that vision. Even the most powerful tools depend on their users to be effective!
As always, we welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate. Together we have already made a difference and together we will continue to do so!
We are very fortunate to be working with Stephanie Keene (United States), who is an international human rights lawyer, and Imalka Nimalgoda (Canada), who is a lawyer seconded to our team in a very generous gesture by Ecojustice.
You can reach my wonderful colleagues Viktoria Aberg and Frederique Bourque (and me) through the official UN email address: email@example.com
Please take care, stay healthy, enjoy the wonders of nature, and keep up your great work on behalf of this beautiful planet and our amazing relatives, both human and non-human.