A Healthy Environment Becomes a Human Right 


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on states to take bold actions to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment, following a UN Human Rights Council’s landmark decision to recognise a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right.

The Human Rights Council also increased its focus on the human rights impacts of climate change by establishing a Special Rapporteur dedicated specifically to that issue.

The resolution on the environment (48/13), proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions from Russia, India, China, and Japan.

“The Human Rights Council’s decisive action in recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is about protecting people and planet – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. It is also about protecting the natural systems which are basic preconditions to the lives and livelihoods of all people, wherever they live,” the High Commissioner said. “Having long called for such a step, I am gratified that the Council’s action today clearly recognises environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.”

She said the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social, and environmental policies that will protect people and nature.

The High Commissioner described the triple planetary threats of climate change, pollution, and nature loss as the single greatest human rights challenge of our era.

The resolution on a healthy environment acknowledges the damage inflicted by climate change and environmental destruction on millions of people across the world. It also underlines that the most vulnerable segments of the population are more acutely impacted.

Bachelet paid tribute to the efforts of a diverse array of civil society organisations, including youth groups, national human rights institutions, indigenous peoples’ organizations, businesses and many others worldwide who have been advocating for full international recognition of this right. She stressed the importance that the rights to participation, access to information and access to justice are also respected in order for the human right to a healthy environment to be fully realized. Noting that an unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders were reported killed last year, the High Commissioner urged States to take firm measures to protect and empower them.

“We must build on this momentum to move beyond the false separation of environmental action and protection of human rights. It is all too clear that neither goal can be achieved without the other, and to that end a balanced, human rights-based approach to sustainable development must be ensured,” she said.

Health and Human Rights has two relevant special sections in its forthcoming December issue: Ecological Justice and the Right to Health, and Health Rights and the Urgency of the Climate Crisis.