Making A Healthy Environment A Human Right

OHCHR says healthy environment is a human right

More and more people are demanding that clean water, breathable air, and a stable climate are fundamental human rights. Turns out, the UN agrees. Without a healthy environment, more traditional rights such as those to "life, health, development, culture" cannot be properly enjoyed, explains Ben Schachter, a human rights officer at the Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights (OHCHR).

In some form or another, over 100 countries already recognize the human right to a healthy environment. But OHCHR, is working on introducing a UN resolution to make access to a healthy environment a universally recognized right.

UNEP: Recognizing the human right to healthy environment, June 3, 2021.

UNEP: How to claim your right for clean air, March 24, 2021.

Why This Matters

If OHCHR's resolution succeeds, it will be a big win for activists already looking to hold governments and private firms accountable for climate change. "This is a completely new trend in giving nature its own rights," Malgosia Fitzmaurice, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, told Science Focus. "It's not anthropocentric anymore but it's general and positioning human beings as part of nature, I think."

Some Case Studies From The Courts

In 2018, Colombia's Supreme Court granted rights of personhood to the Colombian part of the Amazon rainforest. Rivers around the world, including in Canada and New Zealand, have also been granted personhood by judiciaries.

In 2019, a lawsuit brought by the non-profit Urgenda against the Netherlands led to the historic ruling binding the Dutch state to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. The court based its decision in part due to the risk climate change posed on human rights.

In 2020, six activists from Portugal filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France demanding a total of 33 countries (made up of the EU, UK, and Russia) accelerate GhG cuts. The case is still in motion.

In 2021, an Indonesian court ordered that the Central Jakarta District Court improve air quality in the island nation's capital.

UNEP: Deforestation and diseases: why disrupting ecosystems may put us at risk, April 22, 2020.

UNEP: Unequal Exposure, May 29, 2019.

NRDC: Safe Drinking Water Is A Right, December 9, 2020.

Mixing Politics And The Environment

Although economists are wary of place-based policies, the climate crisis is challenging traditional thinking. Small island nations like Palau and the Maldives are disproportionately suffering the consequences of climate change caused largely by rich nations like the US, Russia, and China. Securing the right to a healthy environment may require localized policies where resources are redistributed from the least-affected regions to the most-affected regions.

As Science Focus puts it, "In some cases, legal action may be geared towards establishing what's owed by wealthier, more polluting nations to smaller countries that are the worst affected by climate change."

Climate activists have also stressed the need for local thinking in the environmental justice movement, and forward-looking measures like redistribution, judiciary restitution, or even climate reparations. What is clear is that some countries will need much more than others to be able to effectively secure the right to a healthy environment, or at the very least -- a stable one.

Robin Hood: "This is Loss and Damage - Who Pays" narrated by Mark Strong, September 23, 2021.