UN body recognises a clean environment as a human right

The meeting place of the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

The UN Human Rights Council on Friday backed a Swiss-sponsored resolution to recognise a new fundamental right: access to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

This content was published on October 8, 2021 minutes

The textExternal link, proposed by Switzerland, Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco and Slovenia, passed comfortably, and prompted what Reuters reported as a “rare burst of applause in the Geneva forum”.

Despite criticism of the text in the lead-up by countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, the vote passed with 43 in favour and four abstentions (Russian, India, China, and Japan).

It will put extra pressure on countries to take more action on environmental change, which High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said last month was shaping up to be “the most important challenge for human rights” across the world.

Although the text is not binding, some countries said during the debate that a new law should be passed to make it so; the Human Rights Council has also called on the UN General Assembly to discuss the question further.

Costa Rica’s ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar said the decision will “send a powerful message to communities around the world struggling with climate hardship that they are not alone”.

Critics had raised various objections, saying the Council was not the appropriate forum and citing legal concerns.

Switzerland, like the US, is currently not a member of the 47-member human rights council, and thus didn’t vote itself on the resolution. However, as an observer country, it can put proposals forward.

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