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UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right.

UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right.

Date: 22 August 2022


 


The right to live in a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment" was voted to be a universal human right by the United Nations General Assembly on July 28, 2022. UNGA also urged countries, enterprises and international organizations to increase efforts to make that a reality and to ensure that their citizens have access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The General Assembly stated in the resolution adopted at UN headquarters in New York City that environmental degradation and climate change were two of the most urgent threats to humanity's future. With 161 votes in favor, and 8 abstentions, the UN General Assembly made a historic decision to tackle the triple global disaster of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. The mentioned recognition did not come out of the blue. In fact, it was followed by years of worldwide effort, advocacy and dedication by professionals, communities and environmental justice campaigns. Almost all countries have domestic laws enacted to limit pollution, protect wildlife, and address climate change, yet those rules are not always fully enforced and when they are violated, individuals often find it difficult to hold governments and companies liable.

In that respect, it should be noted that the declaration is not legally binding. Countries can vote in favor of a declaration of rights without practically upholding those rights. Furthermore, because of the vagueness of the language, it is unclear what exactly a clean, healthy and sustainable environment means. Still, it’s more than just moral posturing. Such resolutions have a history of establishing a framework for subsequent treaties and domestic laws. That, according to supporters, would provide environmental activists with more tools to challenge projects that harm the environment. In addition, citizens will be able to use such declarations as essential tools to put pressure on states and private sectors to improve human welfare.

On the other hand, several representatives pointed to the absence of a worldwide understanding of the nature, content and scope of this specific right. Some of them declared that “States can only talk about a legally recognized right after such right is recognized exclusively within international treaties”[1] and some others said that “the draft resolution tries to impose additional burdens on developing countries in terms of environmental commitments and recognizes a human right that lacks clear definition and understanding among States.”[2]

In any case, legal recognition of this right would acknowledge the necessity for a universal protection of this right. Further, it would support the measures that many States are now taking. As a consequence, benefits such as improved environmental laws and regulations, more public engagement in environmental matters, and less environmental injustices would be realized.

While many environmental cases have been resolved, many more major ones are still pending. Each case lays a strong foundation for others and strengthens the argument that governments must preserve the right of all generations to enjoy a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

In a nutshell, “This resolution sends a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight. Change can take time, but I believe this latest declaration of human rights will support climate and environmental justice across the world.” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

[1] The representative of the Russian Federation

[2] The representative of Iran 

The right to live in a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” was voted to be a universal human right by the United Nations General Assembly on July 28, 2022. UNGA also urged countries, enterprises and international organizations to increase efforts to make that a reality and to ensure that their citizens have access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.