New Publication Details the Contours and Next Steps for the Right to a Healthy Environment

9 January 2023

Our new publication Human Rights and the Environment – authored by our Associate Research Fellow Dr Megan Donald – explores the implications of the recently recognized right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, with a focus on the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

‘The UNGA recognition of the right to a healthy environment constitutes an important milestone. We aim, with this new publication, to build on this recognition by providing needed guidance to this body, states, the HRC, other UN human rights mechanisms, supervisory bodies of multilateral environmental agreements, as well as experts and NGOs on how to mainstream it in their work and resolutions’ explains Dr Christophe Golay, Senior Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy.

‘This mainstreaming, in turn, will assist judicial and administrative decision-making related to the environment and human rights, encourage states to prioritize the implementation of this right through legislation, policy and resource allocation, and potentially provide access to justice and remedies for those who suffer from the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change’ he adds.

Clarifying the Scope and Content of the Right to a Healthy Environment

The historic recognition of the right to a healthy environment has important implications for the relationship between human rights and the content of both international environmental law and human rights law.

Although recently recognized, the right to a healthy environment is not new. Its content has been discussed in various national, regional and international instruments and jurisprudence. The work of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has examined these sources and is an important guide in clarifying the content and scope of the right.

‘This publication, by giving an overview of the relationship between human rights and the environment, examining the meaning of the right to a healthy environment and the implications of its recognition, and by considering the relationship between human rights and the environment in HRC and UNGA resolutions contributes to clarifying the content and scope of this right’ explains Dr Megan Donald, Associate Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy.

Young girl in an open dump

Recommendations for Future UNGA and HRC Resolutions

Many HRC and UNGA resolutions already recognize the important interdependent relationship between human rights and the environment. Future resolutions of this nature can strengthen these links between human rights and the environment through references to the right to a healthy environment, or elements thereof.

The publication recommends that future resolutions of these two bodies affirm the right to a healthy environment and include specific references to the right when dealing with thematic areas closely related to human rights and the environment. These should notably incorporate the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment's Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, as well as the elements of the right to a healthy environment.

A Shorter Version for Policy-Makers

The main findings and recommendations entailed in this publication are summarized in a Research Brief aimed at policy-makers who negotiate resolutions at the HRC and UNGA.

The two publications will be presented and discussed with various stakeholders via a series of events scheduled in 2023.

‘We will continue to work on this important topic with a focus on the recognition and implementation of the right to a healthy environment at the national level’ explains Dr Golay.

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