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UN Declares Healthy Environment a Human Right

Fifty years in the making, the United Nations’ recent overwhelming approval of a resolution recognizing the right to a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” is being heralded as a “victory for people and planet,” and a potential foundation for future legal action.

Based on a similar text adopted last year by the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly resolution—which passed 161-0 with eight nations abstaining and 24 no-shows—“calls on all nations, international organizations, and businesses to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all people,” reports The Associated Press.

UN Secretary General António Guterres’ deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq celebrated the resounding vote as evidence that global cooperation is still possible.

“This landmark development demonstrates that member states can come together in our collective fight against the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” Haq said.

General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, and a number of countries—some of those that voted “yes”, and those that abstained (Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Syria)—warned that this one was little more than a “political declaration,” albeit a critically important one.

But Inger Andersen, executive director of the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program, still hailed the vote as “a victory for people and planet,” noting that “from a foothold in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the right [to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment] has been integrated into constitutions, national laws, and regional agreements.”

She added that “today’s decision elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition.”

Testifying to the productive moral weight the resolution could carry forward, the UN recalled how its formal recognition of the right to food 60 years ago has since helped courts and national human rights organizations around the world fight threats to food security. Similarly, the UN’s recognition of the right to water in 2010 led to a surge of legal cases.

“Institutions, governments, and businesses must now mobilize resources and take concrete steps to make this right a reality, beginning with protecting environmental defenders and climate-vulnerable communities,” said the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

“Today, we celebrate this long-sought victory for people and the planet,” CIEL added. “Tomorrow, we will advocate for the protection and fulfillment of this critical human right, and for its recognition at the national level in every country of the world and through regional human rights frameworks.”