On a vote of 161 in favor and eight abstentions, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic resolution on Thursday, declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a universal human right (document A/76/L.75). The eight abstaining states included: China, Russian Federation, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia. China, in particular sought to make a case for delay to more decisively incorporate its own path into the document (China "requested more time, patience
and efforts to avoid undue haste, expressing concern that a reference to
common but differentiated responsibilities was not included in the
The UN Press Release stated:
The text, originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and now co-sponsored by over 100 countries, notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements.
It also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right - and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.
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To some extent this self-centered human rights project constituted the heart of the Resolution. A clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is to be understood--and measured--as a function of its effects on humans, individuals and collectives. The rights and responsibilities (of states and others) with respect to the clean, safe, and sustainable environment, is understood to extend only as far as human needs take it--and no further. Thus, the environment can remain, to some extent, dirty, unhealthy, and unsustainable for itself, or for the creatures (flora and fauna) other than humans) as long as the rights of humans within it are maintained. And yet that is the fundamental paradox of this marvelous effort--the more the focus is selfish, the more the valuation is centered on the human, the less likely it is that it will be possible to attain a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. It follows that the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is itself self defeating, precisely because it overvalues in an unsustainable way the unchecked desires of one element of the equation through which it is possible to maintain the desired state of cleanliness, health and sustainability.
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The effect is subtle but significant. One shapes an object by the way one conceives of it. And one conceives of an object by the way it is measured. And one measures an object by projecting a belief of its place among other objects and by the construction of an ideal state within which objects interact. Measuring human rights by its contribution to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment reshapes the human rights enterprise. One reshapes the character of the human rights project from a self-serving one in which the effects of human activity is viewed as a consequence that ought to be mitigated if necessary (to the extent it suits the human condition) to one in which the rights of humans are deeply embedded in and expressed as actions contributing to the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all. That, in a sense returns human rights to its origins--and amplified the traditional and valuable reflect of human rights as it has sought to remake the shape of economic activity from a selfish self-centered one (limited to the production of wealth narrowly understood) to a contribution to the welfare of humans and human collectives. It is now time for the medicine that human rights applied to economic activity top be applied to human rights activity itself. This is the great and difficult task of humanity for this century--for humanity to reshape the way it conceives of itself and its place in (and not on) the world.
With 161 votes in favour and 8 abstentions, the General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution today recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right and calling for greater global efforts to ensure that principle is upheld.
Affirming that promoting that right requires the full implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements, the 193-member body called upon States, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders to adopt policies, enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity-building and continue to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.
The representative of Costa Rica, introducing the text, underscored that with the world facing an unprecedented triple environmental crisis — of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution — the universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment provides a powerful, effective response that could catalyse transformative changes in societies.
Prior to the text’s adoption, several delegates stressed that there is no common internationally agreed understanding on the content and scope for the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, with the Russian Federation’s representative stressing that States can only talk about a legally recognized right after such right is recognized exclusively within international treaties.
On that point, Pakistan’s representative said the resolution is a political text, not a legal affirmation by the Assembly. While his delegation voted in favour in the hope the text’s adoption would further galvanize efforts to address environmental degradation and its negative impact on the realization of basic human rights, he said the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities, should have been included in the resolution.
Moreover, Iran’s representative observed that references to unilateral coercive measures, which impede the enjoyment of human rights in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, are lacking in the text.
Following the action, delegations continued to voice regret that important elements were not included in the resolution. The speaker for the United Kingdom said it failed to acknowledge the role of human rights defenders working on environmental issues or the need for deeper discussion on this right.
Jamaica’s representative, noting references such as “unsustainable development” in the resolution, said that use of the term “unsustainable” in a way that is not universally agreed allows for subjective interpretation and undermines global efforts to coherently resolve sustainable development challenges.
Delegations also said that negotiations could have benefited from more time or debate, with the speaker for New Zealand pointing out that given the tight timeframe, her delegation did not have time to consult with the Maori on the scope and recognition of the new right.
Earlier in the meeting, the Assembly adopted a resolution declaring Central Asia a zone of peace, trust and cooperation. Introducing the text, Turkmenistan’s representative — also speaking for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — said the countries of the region have great potential for cooperation and development.
The speaker for Pakistan noted his country is committed to building connectivity and cooperation in trade, investment, transport, energy and other sectors with its Central Asian neighbours.
The representative of the United States, while noting the text creates a foundation of greater cooperation among Central Asian Governments, voiced disappointment that some delegations fought vigorously against the inclusion of language reaffirming the mutually reinforcing relationship between human rights and the rule of law in peacebuilding and sustaining peace.
Also speaking today were representatives of Brazil, Pakistan, Iran, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Syria, Canada, Japan, Belarus, Norway, India, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Israel, Egypt, Poland and China, as well as the European Union.
The representatives of Poland and Belarus also spoke in exercise of the right of reply.
Action on Draft Resolutions
AKSOLTAN ATAEVA (Turkmenistan), speaking also on behalf of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, introduced the resolution titled “zone of peace, trust and cooperation in Central Asia” (document A/76/L.74), stressing that the time has come to articulate and declare clearly the principles and norms that will contribute, based on the legitimate interests of Central Asian countries, to peace and security, sustainable development in that region, cooperation and the cultural relations of their people. The countries of the region have great potential for cooperation and development, she said, adding that they share a common spiritual, cultural and historical heritage. They also share transport and communication networks and economies that complement each other.
The representative of Pakistan, speaking in explanation of vote before the vote, said the resolution’s aims — to strengthen international peace and security, promote the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, advance multilateralism and enhance mutual understanding and cooperation — are essential building blocks for economic development, regional peace, prosperity and connectivity in Central Asia and beyond. His country is committed to building connectivity and cooperation in trade, investment, transport, energy and other sectors with its Central Asian neighbors. For sustainable peace in the region, durable peace and security in Afghanistan must be ensured, he added, calling for sustained engagement with that country’s Government by all its six immediate neighbors.
The General Assembly adopted “L.74” without a vote.
By its terms, the Assembly, among other things, declared the region of Central Asia a zone of peace, trust and cooperation. It also recommended that all States in the region and all other regions cooperate in preserving peace in the Central Asian zone and respect the national unity, sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of all States of the region, in strict observance of the Charter of the United Nations.
The representative of the United States said the intent to establish the region as a zone of peace creates a foundation of greater cooperation among those Governments that can reinforce interconnected pillars of a peaceful and prosperous society, sustainable development, peace and security, human rights and the rule of law. He voiced disappointment that some delegations fought vigorously against the inclusion of language reaffirming the mutually reinforcing relationship between human rights and the rule of law in peacebuilding and sustaining peace. However, his delegation is pleased that the resolution acknowledged the critical role of women in the promotion of peace, security and sustainable development.
MARITZA CHAN VALVERDE (Costa Rica), speaking also on behalf of Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, then introduced the draft resolution titled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” (document A/76/L.75), noting that over the last 20 years, the call to establish the right to a healthy environment has been growing ever stronger at the international level. The co-presenters of the draft resolution opted for a technical approach, with the focus on the recognition of the right, building on the resolution of the Human Rights Council, she said, noting that the final draft is a strong, well balanced text linking human rights, environment and development language.
The world is facing an unprecedented triple environmental crisis, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, she noted. As such, the universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment provides a powerful and effective response that could catalyze transformative changes in societies. The resolution will contribute to enhancing and integrating the United Nations response to the triple environmental crisis, as well as to support Member States more coherently and effectively in fulfilling their human rights obligations on environmental matters, and to scale up efforts to guarantee a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.
The representative of the Russian Federation, speaking in explanation of vote before the vote, pointed out that neither universal environmental agreements nor international human rights treaties address the concepts of a clean, healthy or sustainable environment or similar notions. Only until such a right is recognized exclusively within international treaties as approved by States can they talk about a legally recognized right. The method pursued by the sponsors recognizing that right through an Assembly resolution is arguable in legal terms and could pose negative consequences, he said. For those reasons, he said the Russian Federation cannot support the draft and called for a vote on it. However, recognizing the importance of the subject matter, he said his delegation will not vote against it and will abstain.
The representative of Brazil said his delegation is voting in favour of the initiative. However, it regrets that the core group was not able to conduct a negotiating process that would allow for greater debate on the important issue. He also voiced regret that the final text does not incorporate a clear reaffirmation of the principle of State sovereignty, while taking into account national priorities and common but differentiated responsibilities. Voicing disappointment that the text lacks strong language on the provision of financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, he stressed that those elements are necessary for developing countries to implement in good faith the right recognized in the draft resolution.
The representative of Pakistan said that as the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and corresponding States’ obligations are not legally established by existing international human rights instruments, the present resolution is a political resolution, not a legal affirmation by the Assembly. Outlining ways in which the resolution could have been strengthened, he pointed out that the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities, as enshrined in principle 7 of the Rio Declaration at the first Rio Summit in 1992, is an accepted principle and should have been reflected. His country will vote in favour of the resolution, however, in the hope that the political affirmation of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment will further galvanize individual and collective efforts to effectively address ongoing environmental degradation and its negative impact on the realization of basic human rights.
Several delegates then made statements in explanation of vote before the vote.
The representative of Iran said the draft resolution tries to impose additional burdens on developing countries in terms of environmental commitments and recognizes a human right that lacks clear definition and understanding among States and does not exist in core international human rights treaties. References to unilateral coercive measures are lacking in the text, she observed, noting that such measures impede the enjoyment of human rights in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Outlining her delegation’s other concerns, she stressed that without addressing barriers and means of implementation, Member States have not appropriately taken into consideration the concerns of countries. As such, her delegation will abstain from voting.
The representative of Nicaragua noted that developing countries are the least responsible for human-induced climate change. Unfortunately, the text does not include a reference to the historical responsibility of developed countries and the need for them to be at the forefront of changes in current patterns of production and consumption. In order to have a human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, poverty and hunger must first be eradicated. In that connection, developed countries must fulfill their commitments to official development assistance, technology transfer and capacity-building.
The representative of Bolivia said his country is a pioneer in considering the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human collective right and as a right that goes beyond human beings. It is important to begin discussions and implementation of innovative policies that protect that right and ensure a balanced and fair distribution of responsibilities, he said. Means of implementation must be provided so that developing countries can enjoy conditions for a transition that will allow them to enjoy the right to development. His delegation will vote in favor of resolution, he said, calling on all States to work together to find consensus.
The representative of Syria said that given the adverse impact of severe weather phenomena on developing countries, her delegation saw the merit in highlighting their development needs and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Voicing regret that her delegation’s concerns were not reflected in the text, she said that given the importance of the topic, Syria will not vote against the draft resolution but will abstain from voting.
The Assembly then adopted “L.75” by a recorded vote of 161 in favour to 0 against, with 8 abstentions (Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Russian Federation, Syria).
By its terms, the Assembly recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, noting that this right is related to other rights and existing international law, and affirming that the promotion of this right requires the full implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements under the principles of international environmental law. It called on States, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders to adopt policies, enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity-building and continue to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.
The representative of the United Kingdom expressed his country’s strong commitment to tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, voicing concern that environmental degradation can have implications for the full enjoyment of human rights, and in some cases, posing risks to life. He called on States to promote their human rights obligations while taking action to stem climate change and biodiversity loss. Recognition of the right in the resolution is without due regard for the usual formulation of international human rights law, and without prejudice to the United Kingdom’s legal position. There is no international consensus on the legal basis for the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and the United Kingdom does not consider it has yet emerged as a customary right. Recognizing rights without due consideration and a common understanding of what those rights comprise creates ambiguity. People cannot know what they can claim from the State, and conversely, the State has no clear understanding of the right it is obliged to afford to the individual.
He said the resolution also fails to acknowledge the role of human rights defenders working on environmental issues or the need for deeper discussion on this right. Noting that General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, recognition of the right in the text does not legally bind States to its terms. It is the United Kingdom’s understanding that the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment derives from existing international economic and social rights law, he said, pointing to operational paragraph 2, which notes that the right is related to other rights and existing international law. As these matters are of deep concern to all, the United Kingdom voted for the resolution.
The representative of Jamaica, noting that her country’s Constitution recognizes the right to enjoy a healthy environment, said she voted in favour of the text. As a small island developing State facing unique environmental vulnerabilities, Jamaica is a fervent advocate in the United Nations context on issues of climate change, natural resource depletion and biodiversity loss, she said, stressing that the only way to address such multifaceted global challenges is through multilateral cooperation. References to “unsustainable management and use of natural resources” and “unsustainable development” in preambular paragraphs 9 and 13 are not terms agreed by the General Assembly. Use of the term “unsustainable” in a way that is not universally agreed allows for subjective interpretation and undermines global efforts to coherently resolve challenges to sustainable development. The text could have benefited from a reference to the Stockholm+50 meeting and the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly.
The representative of Canada said her country has been a strong voice for the respect and promotion of human rights, recognizing that degradation can negatively impact human rights. There is no common internationally agreed understanding on the content and scope for the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Her delegation looks forward to working with others to determine what it might entail within the international human rights framework.
The representative of Japan said his delegation engaged in the consultation process, with due regard for the aspirations of the core group to send a political message. After careful consideration, including on the effects of climate change, which are increasingly severe, his delegation voted in favour of the resolution. However, the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment has the potential to be “extremely broad” in scope and must be clearly defined. Japan does not consider the resolution to alter existing international law, he said, noting that it also fails to include elements such as the role of human rights defenders.
The representative of Belarus said operative paragraph 1 made it impossible for his delegation to vote in favour of the resolution. She therefore abstained, as recognizing a special category of human rights can only be done through a universal legally binding instrument. She drew attention to the environmental and legal aspects around Poland’s construction of a barrier along its border with Belarus, which is damaging the environment. She urged Poland to dismantle the structure and remove the damage done.
The representative of New Zealand acknowledged the need to take a human rights-based approach to climate change, drawing attention to indigenous peoples’ relationship with the environment and the benefits their perspectives can bring to the framing of this proposed human right. Given the tight timeframe, her delegation did not have time to consult with the Maori on the scope and recognition of the new right. She voiced concern over the manner in which a new proposed right has emerged in the United Nations system, noting that it should not be seen as a substitute to international law. This process is an anomaly. In the future, new human rights should not come to the General Assembly in this way, she explained, noting that New Zealand stands ready to reach consensus on an appropriate path forward. Noting that the resolution is not legally binding, she expressed disappointment that the role of human rights defenders was not included therein. The text has the character of a political declaration and does not create international human rights law with legally binding obligations on States.
The representative of Norway said the text sends a strong political message to States to reduce emissions and make sustainable choices. Political recognition does not have any legal effect and she voiced regret that some important elements were not included. Recognizing the legitimate work that human rights defenders do is highly relevant and she expressed regret over the lack of a references to them in the resolution. Norway also would have wanted to see a reference to future discussions on a human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The representative of the United States expressed support for the resolution, registering regret over the loss of important human rights language, including non-controversial language related to human rights defenders. There is no legal relationship between a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and existing international law, and the United States does not recognize any change therein, he said, adding that paragraph 3 conflates multilateral environmental agreements.
The representative of India, while welcoming the constructive approach of the core group, said more time could have helped to bridge differences. He expressed concern on procedural and substance grounds, noting that General Assembly resolutions do not create binding obligations and that it is only through conventions and treaties that State parties undertake obligations for such right. Also, “clean”, “healthy” and “sustainable” are terms that lack an internationally agreed definition. The text fails to refer to the foundational principle of equity in international environmental law.
He voiced concern that, even after strong support by several Member States for the inclusion of a preambular paragraph 8 on Human Rights Council resolution 48/13 — the basis for the current resolution — the decision was otherwise. It would have reinforced the importance of international cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, in full compliance with the United Nations Charter and with full respect for the sovereignty of States, while considering national priorities. Various proposals could have brought States closer to consensus. He voted in favour of the text, however his delegation’s concerns remain outstanding, and he disassociated it from operative paragraph 1.
The representative of Sri Lanka said his delegation voted in favour of the resolution, agreeing on the need to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The need to combat the negative effects of climate change can be ensured through the creation of such an environment. However, the obligation of States to act in this regard is not a justiciable right, as decreed by Sri Lanka’s Constitution, but rather a principle of State policy, decreeing that the State shall protect and preserve the environment for the benefit of the community. Sri Lanka’s obligations must be understood within this legal framework.
The representative of Trinidad and Tobago said her delegation engaged in all consultations, with a view to achieving a balanced, consensual text. She expressed disappointment that its proposal to include a reference to sovereignty, as in preambular paragraph 8 of a certain Human Rights Council resolution, was not included, and that a clear rationale for its exclusion was not provided. Inclusion would have reflected a key pillar of the United Nations Charter. Trinidad and Tobago voted in support of the resolution, recognizing that its overarching purpose reflects principles of the Human Rights Council.
The representative of Israel said his country’s support is without prejudice to position to legal status of the right which must be based on well-established criteria for the development of legal norms in the international system. Israel voted in favour and will advance both national and global processes to combat environmental degradation.
The representative of Egypt said his delegation voted in favour of the resolution, noting that the right to a clean, healthy and safe environment is not a new right or category of such, a position that is consistent with Egypt’s stance on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, among other instruments. Egypt carefully considered all issues related to such a right, he said, and existing international principles are indivisible.
The representative of Poland, associating herself with the European Union, said her country recognizes that living in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment affects the enjoyment of other human rights. She said she does not question that certain aspects of environmental matters are given protection in international law. The potential legal implications of the new right envisioned in the resolution remain to be determined. She voted in favour of the resolution.
The representative of China said her country’s national human rights action plan includes a section on environmental rights. China recognizes the aspirations of the co-sponsors to promote discussions on environmental matters; however, there is no agreement on the right to the environment — specifically, on its definition and relationship to other human rights. She requested more time, patience and efforts to avoid undue haste, expressing concern that a reference to common but differentiated responsibilities was not included in the text. For such reasons, China abstained.
The representative of the European Union, speaking in its capacity as observer, acknowledged that reference to some form of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is enshrined in numerous national and regional instruments. However, more must be done to translate them into action. Today’s resolution lays the ground for such action. While the European Union would have liked to have seen a reference to the role of “environmental human rights defenders” in the text, his delegation voted in favour of the resolution.
Right of Reply
The representative of Poland, to her counterpart from Belarus, explained that in 2021, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko engineered a migration crisis, leaving thousands of migrants stranded. This is the sole reason for the structure on Poland’s border, a situation Poland is closely monitoring. The fence on the Polish side includes 20 large animal crossings, she said, noting that waterways and marshes, among other areas, will not be fenced. The fence will be subject to electronic monitoring by Poland.
The representative of Belarus requested that respect be shown to her country when referring to its Government in the General Assembly, adding that there are no migrants on the border.