Blog.Dec 06, 2021

The human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment: the legal nitty-gritty

On the 8th of October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 48/13, recognizing that having a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is indeed a human right. In this blog series, SIWI’s focal point on the human rights-based approach (HRBA) and advisor on water policy and rights, Dr Jenny Grönwall, highlights how this ‘new’ right is critical for a water wise world.

The right to a healthy environment (HRHE) is essential for the full enjoyment of all human rights. It is inextricably related to the rights to life and health, as well as other rights such as to safe drinking water.

The force behind the words

While Human Rights Council resolutions are not legally binding on UN Member States, they do pave the way for strong political commitments. The adoption of resolution 48/13 solidifies the idea that the right to a healthy environment should be universally protected. It reflects a value shift among the 43 nations that voted in its favour, which resonates with the concern that many share globally: that our planet can no longer support us as it used to, and human health needs to be protected in a more coordinated way alongside protection of the environment.

The development in this field has a powerful normative value at many levels. The resolution can be utilized in a range of situations. Environmental and human rights advocates, as well as the public, can use it as a leverage to put pressure on national authorities and the world community to take action. Dr David R. Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, points to how the recognition of this right is an important catalyst for steps at national level. It also provides an additional tool to challenge State and corporate actors for failing to take prompt and adequate action against an environmental harm, which could negatively affect human life.

Environmental and human rights advocates, as well as the public, can use it as a leverage to put pressure on national authorities and the world community to take action.

Constructing a ‘new’ human right

To establish this ‘new’ right to a healthy environment, the Council employed a similar construction to that which was developed eleven years ago, when the human rights to water and sanitation (HRWS) were adopted. It draws on how this right is “essential for the full enjoyment of all human rights”, and “inextricably related to the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as other rights”. It is therefore stated that the HRHE “is in accordance with existing international law”.

However, the Council did not make any reference to the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) or any other conventions already binding on State Parties that signed and ratified them, as was done for the HRWS. And despite various types of recognitions in national law and policy, this right has yet to become binding under international customary law, which exists independent of agreed multilateral treaties. It is too early to discern any ‘general and consistent practice’ of States that is followed from ‘a sense of legal obligation’.

Importantly, the right to a sustainable environment is about human – anthropocentric – health and well-being, whereas nature’s own rights are outside its scope.

No rights without obligations

The ICESCR specifies that State Parties must adopt legislative measures to achieve, progressively, the human rights. The 2018 Framework Principles explain that to protect against environmental harm and to fully realise the human rights that depend on a healthy and sustainable environment, States must establish, maintain, and enforce effective legal and institutional frameworks. These should include substantive environmental standards, including those related to freshwater quality and the global climate.

The Special Rapporteur has also published several reports mapping the obligations necessary to realise the HRHE:

Rights and obligations relating to water resources

In terms of substance (the normative content or the attributes of the right), it is still early days to know more specifically what the HRHE means in relation to water resources. In his 2021 report Human rights and the global water crisis: water pollution, water scarcity and water-related disasters, the Special Rapporteur writes that safe and sufficient water is one of the substantive components of the HRHE. Current obligations provide that States must respect the right to property and adequate housing, which could be seen as corresponding to a right to be free from the impacts of extreme rainfall events, flooding, and sea level rise. Further, the State must already respect traditional and customary arrangements for water allocation that communities and indigenous peoples rely on. And lastly, ‘freedom from interference’ should include a State’s obligations not to arbitrarily disconnect, diminish, pollute, or contaminate water supplies, as well as to prevent third parties from doing so.

The business community, too, has a role

Resolution 48/13 also recalled the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which “underscore the responsibility of all business enterprises to respect human rights.” These Principles, unanimously adopted in 2011, are regarded international soft law and endorsed by a large number of companies.

This blogpost is part of a series that looks at human rights, water resources, and governance for a healthy and sustainable environment.

This is the second post. The next and final one describes what SIWI does in this field.

Read the next blog post

Read the first blog posts of the series: Human rights, water resources, and governance for a healthy and sustainable environment

This blogpost is part of

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UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility