Historic UN vote ups global commitment to the environment

In an overwhelming vote The UN General Assembly adopted an historic resolution on 29 July declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a universal human right.

The resolution, based on a similar text adopted last year by the Human Rights Council that drew wild applause when it passed, calls upon nation-states, international organisations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all.

Of the 193 UN member states, 161 voted in favour of the resolution and eight abstained, namely China, Russia, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the “historic” decision and said member states should come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples,” he said in a statement released by his spokesperson’s office.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, said the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law.

“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act.”

Activists respond to Australia’s commitment

The Australian Environmental Defenders Office welcomed the commitment by the Australian government which voted in favour of the resolution.

“The General Assembly decision is critical to ensuring universal protection of human life, wellbeing, and dignity in the face of the triple planetary crisis,” a spokes person for the EDO told Cosmos.  

“Environmental crises are human rights’ crises – our health and wellbeing are inextricably linked to our equal access to a safe and healthy environment.  

“We congratulate the Australian Government for voting to recognise the right. It is a welcome step in the right direction. The urgency in Australia is in stark relief given the dire outlook reported in last week’s release of the 2021 State of Environment Report.   

“This resolution places clear impetus on Australian policy and decision makers at all levels of government to consider peoples’ human rights to a healthy environment.“ 

“The time is now to protect our rights and legislate our human right in Australia.”

Revel Pointon, a senior solicitor at the Environmental Defenders Office said in a recent discussion paper that various states have introduced legislation that seeks to recognise and protect human rights.

“The right to a healthy environment has been integrated into over 150 legal frameworks around the world; Australia remains one of only 15 countries without the right to a healthy environment enshrined in our federal laws or constitution,” Pointon wrote in the paper with Dr Justine Bell-James, Associate Professor at the TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland.

The authors suggest while the interpretation of the right to life as incorporating a right to a healthy environment has not yet been tested in jurisdictions with human rights laws, there is no reason in principle why the human right to life cannot also be used in the Australian context as a vehicle for environmental-based claims.

Human rights are codified in international agreement or treaties between governments, called conventions or covenants. International human rights treaties provide an agreed set of human rights standards and establish ways to monitor compliance. In accordance with the process of ratification, by ratifying a treaty, a country voluntarily accepts legal obligations under international law.

Australia is party to seven core international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and others.

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