The Case for Universal Recognition of the Right to a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment

In September 2020, Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland delivered a joint statement at the 45th session of the Human Rights Council (Council) committing themselves to bring forward resolutions, at the Council in Geneva and at the General Assembly in New York, declaring universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (R2E).

The statement followed a steady build-up of momentum over the course of 2020. During that time, senior UN figures, including the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Executive Director of UNICEF and the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, joined a growing chorus of support for universal recognition.

Notwithstanding, the story of the push for universal recognition of R2E goes back much further.

Environmental concerns were entirely absent during UN discussions on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the negotiation of the two international human rights covenants, for the simple reason that the instruments were negotiated before the advent of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s. The first significant effort to change this status quo came almost 50 years ago, when States adopted the 1972 Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment. The Stockholm Declaration catalysed a global movement to better connect human rights and environmental concerns in national legislation and even in national constitutions. Increasingly, that included moves by governments to recognise, at domestic level and in regional treaties, the inalienable right of their people to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

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