Friday, April 08, 2022

Implementing the Principle of the Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment as a Human Right: Periodic Informal Report of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment


 I am happy to pass along the recently distributed Periodic Informal Report of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.  It is notable for the reporting on the extent to which national and international bodies have taken up the call in HRC Resolution 48/13 (18 October 2021) to  recognize "the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights" (¶ 1) and to note "that the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is related to other rights and existing international law" (¶ 2). 

One continues to wonder, however, whether it makes sense to continue to define the right to a clean and healthy environment by reference to human rights, or whether it might be more useful to start thinking about defining human rights by reference to the clean and healthy environment in which it must necessarily be situated. That would undo or perhaps almost a century of framing human rights, still it may be time to begin a more rigorous project of de centering the human from rights and rights discourse.

Dear friends and colleagues

More than five hectic months have passed following the Human Rights Council’s historic adoption of the resolution (48/13) recognizing, for the first time at the global level, the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The resolution has taken on a life of its own, catalyzing conversations and actions all over the world.

In New York, the core group of States supporting the human rights and environment mandate, (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland) are discussing options for introducing a resolution at the UN General Assembly. The Council of Europe is moving steadily towards the adoption of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, recognizing the right to a healthy environment. Indeed, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended this action last fall, even going so far as providing a draft protocol. Efforts are ongoing to ensure that this fundamental right is included in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, as well as the draft UN treaty on transnational businesses and human rights.

The Constitutional Court of Costa Rica mentioned Resolution 48/13 in a recent decision, based on the constitutional right to a healthy environment, ordering the government to stop the use of a bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticide. The Constitutional Court of Ecuador mentioned Resolution 48/13 in a decision, based partially on the constitutional right to a healthy environment, prohibiting mining in protected forests.

In a major human rights and environment victory that did not involve Resolution 48/13, a South African court ruled that chronic air pollution in the Mpumalanga region violated the constitutional right to a healthy environment. The court ordered the government to enact new regulations to improve air quality within six months, as well as several other actions.  

While in Geneva in March I was able to meet with the Elizabeth Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, her deputy (David Cooper), and the two co-chairs of the ongoing negotiation process, Francis Ogwal and Basile van Havre. We had a terrific conversation about the crucial importance incorporating rights-based approaches to biodiversity conservation in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

Left to right: Francis Ogwal, Basile van Havre, David Boyd and Elizabeth Mrema


Reports and upcoming consultations

In March 2022, I presented a report to the Human Rights Council on non-toxic environments where people can live, work, study and play. This was the sixth report in a series clarifying the substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment, following clean air, a safe climate, a healthy biosphere, safe and sufficient water and healthy and sustainable food. The report focused on extreme cases of environmental injustice, highlighting sacrifice zones around the world where the human rights of poor, vulnerable and marginalized communities have been violated in the name of profit and economic development. More than 80 States asked questions or made comments during the Interactive Dialogue as well as more than a dozen civil society organizations. Excellent media coverage of the report can be found in The Guardian, Reuters and Geneva Solutions. We also held an engaging side eventon this topic, with terrific speakers including Marcos Orellana, Liliana Avila, Robert Bullard, Juliane Kippenberg, and George Kande. H.E. Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of Costa Rica and H.E. Ms. Doreen Debrum, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands provided opening remarks. We also spoke at side events on climate change and human rights (focused on the latest report from the IPCC) and gender, climate change and the environment (celebrating International Women’s Day).

Country Visits

In March, we also presented our country report on the recent visit to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The Government provided a video response praising the visit and pledging to implement all of the recommendations.

Later this year we hope to visit two of the following three States. Portugal, the first country in the world to recognize the right to a healthy environment in its Constitution, back in 1976. Slovenia, a strong supporter of the right to a healthy environment. We also sent a request for a country visit to Chile, where the new government recently signed the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in the Latin America and the Caribbean and where a citizen’s assembly is drafting a new constitution.


Upcoming Reports and Consultations

We have begun the consultation process for a major initiative to provide guidance to States, rightsholders, civil society and businesses on the implementation of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. We held an online session in March with experts who have been engaged with the mandate in recent years. In early May we will host a series of regional meetings to gain further insights into what kind of guidance will be the most helpful for different stakeholders. Please sign up for one of the following sessions by emailing us your name, organization and preferred time at

3 May 2022 06h00 Vancouver = 09h00 New York/ 15h00 Geneva/ 16h00 Nairobi/ 18h30 Delhi

3 May 2022 09h00 Vancouver = 12h00 New York/ 18h00 Geneva/ 19h00 Nairobi/ 21h30 Delhi

4 May 2022 12h00 Vancouver

4 May 2022 21h00 Vancouver = May 5 09h30 Delhi / 12h00 Manila/ 15h00 Sydney

5 May 2022 14h00 Vancouver

The Special Rapporteur will host these virtual events from his home on the west coast of Canada. Please double check the time difference between your location and Vancouver, BC!

This fall we will be presenting a report to the General Assembly on human rights, transformative actions and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As we approach the halfway mark of the SDG campaign, it is vital to assess progress to date, trends, and the potential for the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to be a catalyst for accelerated action. The call for inputs is available here, and the deadline is 15 May 2022.


Friends of the Court

Along with other current and past special procedures mandate holders, we are submitting amicus briefs in lawsuits around the world which involve human rights, climate change, and air pollution. In December, Marcos Orellana and I filed a brief with the Constitutional Court of Ecuador in a case involving a major oil spill that harmed the environment and Indigenous peoples. At issue are a State’s obligations related to implementing the right to a healthy environment, which is constitutionally protected in Ecuador.

As noted earlier, a South African court issued a strong ruling about air pollution, the right to a healthy environment and State obligations. This marked the second successful case on these issues following last fall’s decision by an Indonesian court in a major case about air pollution and human rights in Jakarta, Indonesia. In both cases, the court ordered governments to take strong and specific actions to improve air quality, many of which were identified as legally binding human rights obligations in our amicus brief.

We are working with the Vance Centre for International Justice to prepare an amicus brief in one of the most important human rights and environment cases ever to reach the docket of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Generations of children have been poisoned by lead emissions from a notorious smelter in La Oroya Peru. This is the first pollution case where the Inter-American Court will have the opportunity to articulate the application of the right to a healthy environment, building upon its powerful advisory opinion on human rights and the environment from 2017.

Other Events

Since December, we have given dozens of presentations, speeches and recorded video interventions—too many to list here. We appreciate the opportunity to participate in online events, and thank all of the organizers for their tremendous efforts to inform the public and policy-makers about the human rights implications of today’s global environmental crisis. It was a treat to participate in person in the 21st Asia-Europe Foundation seminar on human rights, with a special focus on climate change. I traveled by train from Geneva to Luxembourg and was delighted to enjoy the company of Sebastian Duyck of the Center for International Environmental Law (big thanks for helping navigate the Paris train and metro system during rush hour!).

I also really appreciated the opportunity to serve as a panelist in three inspiring events associated with the UN Commission on Women’s 66th session, which focused this year on “Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes.” Another highlight was a late night/early morning exchange of views with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in February to discuss the progress towards incorporating the right to a healthy environment in the European human rights system. Finally, it was an honour to provide a brief intervention during one of the final high-level events at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

Press Releases

We also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:

Polluted planet: UN expert urges ambitious, urgent action to tackle human rights violations

10 March 2022

UN human rights experts urge treaty to address ‘plastic tide’

22 February 2022

Sweden: Open pit mine will endanger Indigenous lands and the environment—UN experts

10 February 2022

More press releases and statements....


We continue to invite communications that allege violations of human rights related to environmental damage, degradation, hazards, or the fundamental rights of environmental human rights defenders. We do our best to confirm the facts, identify the relevant principles and obligations of international human rights law, and ask States, and in some cases businesses, to respond to the allegations. Often a group of special procedure mandate-holders will coordinate a joint communication. In some cases, pressure from the UN can result in positive changes, protecting both human rights and the environment. Additional information regarding submitting information is available on the mandate’s website.

The environment mandate joined or led 69 communications in 2021, which can be reviewed (including State and business responses, where received) through the search engine here (select environment mandate and limit the date range to 2021).


The HRC resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was an historic moment in the evolution of the international human rights system. While the moment, and the words on paper, are inspiring, we must build on that momentum. We need accelerated, ambitious and transformative actions that improve air quality, ensure safe and sufficient water, stabilize the climate system, produce healthy and sustainable food, reduce the toxic contamination of the biosphere and its inhabitants and conserve and restore ecosystems and biodiversity. These are not options but rather obligations, and taking a rights-based approach to these challenges is our best hope.

As always, we welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate. Together we have already made a difference and together we will continue to do so!

You can reach my wonderful colleagues Viktoria Aberg and Frederique Bourque (and me) through the official UN email address 

Follow us on Twitter @SREnvironment and through our Youtube channel!

Please take care, stay healthy, enjoy the wonders of nature, and keep up your great work on behalf of this beautiful planet and our amazing relatives, both human and non-human.

Dr. David R. Boyd 
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment 
Associate Professor 
Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability 
School of Public Policy and Global Affairs 
University of British Columbia 

Copyright © 2022 Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, All rights reserved. 
You are receiving this email because you signed up for this newsletter.

Our mailing address is: 
Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
52 Rue des Paquis
Geneva 1201

No comments: