We can now authoritatively claim the human right to the environment, rather than only tentatively referring to “human rights and the environment,” or “the human rights dimensions of the environment.”

In its recent 48th session, the UN Human Rights Council has adopted milestone resolutions recognizing the human right to a safe and clean environment as critical to the enjoyment of all other human rights.

In resolution A/HRC/48/L.23/Rev.1 on the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, adopted by a vote of 43 in favor, none against and 4 abstentions, the Council recognizes the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and encourages states to adopt policies for the enjoyment of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as appropriate, including with respect to biodiversity and ecosystems, and invites the General Assembly to consider the matter.

The historic resolution recalled States’ obligations and commitments under multilateral environmental instruments and agreements, including on climate change, all the Council’s resolutions on human rights and the environment, and relevant resolutions of the General Assembly.

Axiomatically, the Council’s recognition of the human right to a clean and healthy environment implies the acceptance that a clean and healthy environment is a universal human need for human life with dignity. It invoked the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, underscoring the responsibility of all business enterprises to respect human rights, including the rights of environmental human rights defenders.

While recognizing a clean and healthy environment as a human right, the Council did not elaborate the corresponding obligations of states, but provides a catalog of measure that it “encourages” states to undertake, including to:

  • Build capacities and to enhance cooperation with other states, the entire UN System and relevant non-state stakeholders to protect the environment;

  • Share good practices in fulfilling human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment;

  • Adopt relevant policies;

  • Take human rights obligations and commitments into account in the implementation of, and follow-up to the Sustainable Development Goals, bearing in mind their integrated and multisectoral nature.

Voting on the resolution (as orally revised) was as follows:

In favour (43): Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, France, Gabon, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

Against (0):

Abstentions (4): China, India, Japan and Russian Federation.

Read the full resolution here

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-eighth regular session can be found here.

Background documents for the 48th HRC session are available here.

Photo: Two boys express joy at reading the outcome of the Human Rights Council’s vote in the resolution recognizing the human right to a clean and healthy environment. Source: UNEP.

• Access to natural resources
• Climate change
• Environment (Sustainable)
• ESC rights
• Extraterritorial obligations
• Human rights
• International
• Norms and standards
• UN HR bodies
• UN system