In late March, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that calls for a human-rights-based approach to conserving and restoring natural spaces. We speak with the Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Law Division, Arnold Kreilhuber, to find out how the resolution will help safeguard the environment and contribute to sustainable development.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): The Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on human rights and the environment in 2011. What has changed since then and how is this resolution different?
Arnold Kreilhuber (AK): Since 2011 we have seen important developments regarding the undeniable link between human rights and the environment, which are reflected in this resolution (46/L.6.Rev1).
First, the human rights obligations on states relating to the environment have become clearer and more accepted. More than 155 states have now recognized some form of a right to a healthy environment in international agreements or their national constitutions, legislation, or policies.
Second, the resolution notes and advances the need for a human-rights-based approach in the context of conserving, restoring and sustainably using biodiversity, particularly in the context of the ongoing post-2020 biodiversity framework negotiations and the One Health initiative. Third, all the resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council on human rights and the environment over the last decade have, step-by-step, paved the way for the possible global recognition of the right to a healthy environment. The last decade of action on this topic resulted in a statement by states in which they commit to proceeding with negotiations towards adopting a resolution proclaiming the right by the UN.
UNEP: How will the resolution affect the work of UNEP and how could it contribute to the achievement of global environmental and human rights goals?
AK: The resolution is a strong vote of confidence in UNEP’s work on environmental rights. It welcomes UNEP’s work, particularly in the implementation of the UN Secretary General’s Call to Action for Human Rights. It will help advance our ongoing partnership on environmental rights with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other key partners.
The resolution explicitly recalls the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2021, where Member States endorsed UNEP’s Medium-Term Strategy. This is an important acknowledgement of UNEP’s commitment to work on advancing human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
UNEP: The resolution calls on states to take a rights-based approach to biodiversity-related matters. What does this mean in a practical sense?
AK: This is a very important and timely call as the world is preparing to adopt a new Global Biodiversity Framework in 2021. The integration of environmental and human rights would be key to ensuring a healthy, biologically diverse and sustainable planet for present and future generations and in supporting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To assist states and other stakeholders in taking a rights-based approach, UNEP and OHCHR published key messages on biodiversity and human rights. The messages set out ways of incorporating a rights-based approach to biodiversity-related matters, which include practices related to participation in land and resource governance, accountability, cooperation at all levels, education, and the protection of indigenous peoples and environmental human rights defenders engaged in biodiversity-related protection activities.
UNEP: States also signed a joint statement, expressing their intent to proceed with discussions for a resolution on the right to a healthy environment. What is the significance of this statement and what issues will be discussed?
AK: This is a remarkable outcome. The joint statement, signed by 69 states, represents an unprecedented level of support for the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment and a commitment to proceed with the process of formalising this recognition. A number of states in the past have expressed their support for the global recognition of the right but an explicit, strong intent signed by 69 states has never before been accomplished.
Such a statement helps to accelerate the momentum built around the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. This has the support of the UN Secretary-General, heads of UN agencies, including the Executive Director of UNEP, 15 UN entities as well as over 1,100 civil society and indigenous organizations who signed a pledge calling for the recognition of that right.
The next steps will depend on states as it will be an inter-governmental negotiation with the participation of other stakeholders. We expect that states will discuss procedural aspects of the resolution and substantive aspects of the right, including the scope and content of the resolution. UNEP is fully committed to supporting states in achieving this goal.
UNEP: What are the benefits of the global recognition?
AK: UNEP sees several benefits of the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Among others, UNEP expects that the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment will serve as a catalyst in addressing a triple planetary crisis: climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution.
Evidence shows that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment has contributed to stronger environmental laws and policies, improved implementation and enforcement of those laws and policies, increased levels of public participation in environmental decision-making and has enhanced access to information and access to justice. In short, it has contributed to improved environmental outcomes.
The recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level will support efforts to address environmental crises in a more coordinated, effective and non-discriminatory manner, help achieve the SDGs, provide stronger protection of rights and of the people defending the environment, and help create a world where people can live in harmony with nature.
UNEP: Do UN resolutions make a difference? Is there any evidence of that from the past?
AK: Studies show that UN resolutions have made a difference. An example can be drawn from the process of the formal recognition of the right to water and sanitation as an independent human right by the UN General Assembly Resolution (64/292) in July 2010. The recognition spurred the inclusion of the right to water and sanitation in national constitutions, laws and policies and resulted in positive effects on global water governance and outcomes. Since the adoption of the resolution, countless people have gained access to safe drinking water and sanitation, creating a transformative change in their lives. We expect the UN resolution on the right to a healthy environment would have an important and positive impact on the lives of people on the ground.