The relationship between human rights and the environment has evolved rapidly over the past five decades, and even more so over the past five years. The greening of well-established human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, housing, culture, development, property and home and private life, has contributed to improvements in the health and well-being of people across the world. However, work remains to be done to further clarify and, more importantly, implement and fulfill the human rights obligations relating to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Of paramount importance in this regard is the legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level, so that this fundamental human right can be enjoyed by all persons in all States, rather than in the subset of countries where it is currently recognized. The global recognition of this right would fill a glaring gap in the architecture of international human rights.
There can be no doubt that the right to a healthy environment is a moral right, essential to the health, well-being and dignity of all human beings. However, to ensure that this right is respected, protected and fulfilled, it requires legal protection. Tremendous progress has been made in this regard over the past four decades. The right to a healthy environment enjoys constitutional protection in more than 100 States. It is incorporated into the environmental legislation of more than 100 States. This right is included in regional human rights treaties and environmental treaties ratified by more than 130 States. In total, 155 States have already established legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Recognition of the right to a healthy environment by the United Nations would not only make this right universal in application but would also serve as a catalyst for the implementation of stronger measures to effectively respect, protect, fulfil and promote this right. National and regional experiences demonstrate the potential benefits of recognizing the right to a healthy environment, namely:
- Stronger environmental laws and policies
- Improved implementation and enforcement
- Greater public participation in environmental decision-making
- Reduced environmental injustices
- A level playing field with social and economic rights
- Better environmental performance
The evidence presented in the present report clearly demonstrates that legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment in some States has contributed to cleaner air, safer water and healthier ecosystems. These benefits are vitally important to vulnerable populations, including women, children, persons living in poverty, members of indigenous peoples and traditional communities, older persons, persons with disabilities, minorities and displaced persons.
The Special Rapporteur therefore strongly recommends that Member States expedite the consideration of the three options outlined in paragraphs 46 to 48 of the present report for global recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The three options are a new international treaty, such as the proposed global pact for the environment, a new optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and a General Assembly resolution focused on the right to a healthy environment. In view of the major global environmental problems that are currently causing tremendous hardship for many millions of people throughout the world, this ought to be a matter of the utmost urgency for the General Assembly.
In the meantime, the Special Rapporteur also recommends that all States dedicated to protecting the health of both humans and the ecosystems on which the well-being of humans depends move expeditiously to incorporate the right to a healthy environment into their constitutional, legal and policy frameworks. States in Latin America and the Caribbean should promptly sign and ratify the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement), while other States should consider becoming parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention).
The Special Rapporteur is honoured to be part of an extensive global movement of people dedicated to the essential tasks of defending human rights and protecting the environment. In every country and every community there are women and men, girls and boys, courageously speaking out and taking action. They understand the intimate and indivisible relationship between human rights and the environment, as well as the fundamental reliance of humans on healthy ecosystems for life, well-being and dignity. They need and deserve the support of Governments, international institutions, national human rights institutions, businesses, judiciaries and civil society organizations.
The recognition by the United Nations of a universal right to a healthy environment would be a profoundly meaningful way to empower, energize and inspire their continued efforts. Given the importance of clean air, safe water, healthy ecosystems and a stable climate to the ability of both current and future generations to lead healthy and fulfilling lives, global recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be regarded as an urgent moral imperative.
These are the conclusions of the report: “Human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”. The present report is the first report to the General Assembly of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, John H. Knox, submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 37/8 before the end of his mandate. Mr. Boyd will present the report to the General Assembly in October 2018, Mr. Knox consulted with Mr. Boyd in the preparation of the report. In effect, the report is a joint report of the current holder of the mandate and his successor.