Last updated: 08 Oct 2021

The 48th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC48) was held in Geneva and online from 13 September to 11 October 2021. This page highlights the environmental-related activities of this session and is regularly updated.

At this session, 14 thematic mandates interacted with the Council, namely: African Descent, Arbitrary Detention, democratic and equitable international order, Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, right to development, mercenaries, older persons, racism, slavery, hazardous wastes, truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, unilateral coercive measures, water and sanitation and indigenous peoples. In addition, four country mandates engaged with the Council: Cambodia, Central African Republic, Myanmar and Somalia.

The meeting summary are available on the UN Geneva website. The live-updated programme of work on Sched.

The Right to a Healthy Environment

At HRC48

The Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment on 8 October 2021. Resolution A/HRC/48/L.23 Rev.1 (as orally revised) forwarded by the core group on Human Rights and the Environment – Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland – was adopted with 43 votes in favor and 4 abstentions.

Marking the adoption of the resolution, discussions on its implementation will be underway.

UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment David Boyd has called the HRC’s recognition of the human right to a healthy environment a historic breakthrough that has the potential to improve the life of everyone on the planet.

The world’s future looks a little bit brighter today. The United Nations, in an historical development, has for the first time recognised that everyone, everywhere, has a human right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Read full article →

On the opening day of HRC48, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had called for Member States’ leadership to address the environmental crises which threaten the very foundation of human life. Her statement emphasized that addressing the world’s triple environmental crisis is a humanitarian imperative, a human rights imperative, a peace-building imperative and a development imperative, to which solutions exist.

A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is the foundation of human life. But today, because of human action – and inhuman inaction – the triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and nature loss is directly and severely impacting a broad range of rights, including the rights to adequate food, water, education, housing, health, development, and even life itself. Read full statement →

Civil society organizations amplified this message and called on the HRC to recognize a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a universal human right. Find their statements below:

A press briefing in response to UN Human Rights Council decision on “Right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” at the end of HRC48, took place on 5 October. Young people, business, human rights institutions and civil society organizations are joining forces to say time is now for a healthy environment for all.

The Time is Now

An appeal to the Human Rights Council to recognize without delay the right of all to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment was shared with all member states ahead of HRC45. This appeal, entitled “The Time Is Now“, was signed by more than 1,350 organizations from civil society, social, environmental, youth, gender equality and human rights movements, trade unions, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, from more than 100 countries. The call was conveyed at HRC46 in a joint NGO statement. #TheTimeIsNow

The planetary crises of climate, biodiversity loss and the COVID-19 pandemic show us the devastating costs of the way we have treated our common home, our planet. As claimed around the world, the post-COVID recovery must be a green recovery, with the human right to a healthy natural environment, already widely acknowledged at the national and regional levels (in 156 out of 193 of the UN Member States), at its core. By filling this gap in international human rights law, this recognition will highlight that human rights have to be guaranteed and effective in the face of environmental challenges.

More than 100 constitutions across the world have adopted a human right to a healthy environment, which is proving to be a powerful way to protect the natural world. Read more.

Over 60 nations urged the Human Rights Council in March 2021 to recognize the right to a healthy environment, moving a step closer towards adding a new universal human right that also benefits the planet to the list. Read more.

Human Rights and Climate Change

Climate change is an existential threat for people and the planet. Its harmful effects undermine the full enjoyment and realization of all human rights, disproportionately affecting those who are already in vulnerable situations. Over the past years, the Human Rights Council took on resolutions and discussions on specific aspects of climate change, while Special Rapporteur contributed with reports on specific thematic angles within their mandates. However, there is currently no mechanisms to holistically address the interface of climate change and human rights.

Ahead of HRC48

Over the past years, various governments, civil society organizations and other institutions have expressed their support for establishing a mandate for a new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change in order to better protect the rights of those on the frontlines of climate impacts. Statements on the matter, as well as further information on the initiatives aimed at facilitating these discussions in Geneva and beyond can be found below.

A new resolution on Human Rights and Climate Change (A/HRC/47/L.19) was adopted at HRC47 by a vote of 46 in favour, none against and 1 abstention. The Council emphasized the urgent importance of continuing to address, as they relate to States’ human rights obligations, the adverse consequences of climate change for all, particularly in developing countries and for the people whose situation is most vulnerable to climate change.

The Council also decided to incorporate into its annual programme of work, beginning in 2023, sufficient time, at a minimum a panel discussion, to discuss different specific themes on the adverse impacts of climate change on human rights.  The Council encouraged the continued discussions among States and relevant stakeholders on the possible creation of a new special procedure addressing the adverse impact of climate change on the full and effective enjoyment of human rights.

At HRC48

The Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution establishing the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change (A/HRC/48/L.27 as orally revised) on 8 October 2021.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the core group behind resolution 47/24, the possibility of creating a new special procedure addressing the adverse impact of climate change was placed on the agenda of the Council, and was adopted with 42 votes in favor, 1 against and 4 abstentions. OP 15 of that resolution gives the impetus needed at the Council to discuss the establishment of the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights, and the leadership it needs responding to the threat climate change represents to Human Rights.

On 15 September, the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands hosted a side-event on “Addressing the adverse impact of Climate Change on the full and effective enjoyment of human rights”, co-sponsored by the Bahamas, Barbados, Fiji, Guyana, Haiti, Maldives, Nauru, Singapore, and Vanuatu. This event presented the findings of the latest IPCC report (AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis Report) to the members of the Council in the context of existing and potential future work of the HRC, including the creation of a SR on Climate Change and Human Rights as a response to this crisis.

With the momentum around climate action growing and resolution 47/24 on climate change adopted earlier this year, a core group composed of Bahamas, the European Union, Fiji, Panama, Paraguay, Sudan, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands will be tabling a resolution focused on the technical delivery of the establishment of a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change.

H.E. Amb. Doreen De Brum, Permanent Representative of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the UN

On 5 October 2021, the side event “Human Mobility, Human Rights and Climate Change at the Human Rights Council“, organized by the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD) and the Permanent Mission of Luxembourg to the UN in Geneva, will aim at putting the human rights of persons displaced in the context of the adverse effects of climate change, and in particular slow-onset events, back on the agenda of the HRC. The event is co-sponsored by: Fiji (as Chair of the PDD); the European Union; France; the International Organization for Migration; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights; the Geneva Climate Change Consultation Group; the Centre for International Environmental Law; the International Catholic Migration Commission; and Secours Catholique-Caritas France.

Human Rights and Toxic Substances

Human Rights and Toxic Substances are discussed at the September session of the Human Rights Council. The Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Marco Orellana, presented his report on the right to science in the context of toxic substances (A/HRC/48/61) at this session. The interactive dialogue took take place on 21 September.

The Special Rapporteur started by highlighting that recycling was widely considered as a potential solution to plastic waste. However, investigative journalists had uncovered that the recycling messaging was crafted, not by environmental groups, but by the plastics industry. Less than 10 per cent of plastics were actually recycled, while recycling concentrated the myriad toxic substances that were added to plastics. Disinformation is not unique to plastics, there are numerous examples of tactics by industry, and also by governments, to delay controls, divert attention, and escape effective accountability for exposure to dangerous substances.

Plastic recycling is a clear example of disinformation in the context of toxics.

The report highlights how States and other stakeholders should join efforts to establish a global science-policy interface platform on chemicals and waste that is free of conflicts of interest. Such a platform could raise global awareness of the serious toxification of the planet, identify emerging issues of concern and produce authoritative scientific assessments to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals and waste.

In the specific context of toxic substances, the right to science provides humanity with tools to confront the severe toxification of the planet and overcome the triple environmental crisis of pollution, climate change and loss of nature.

Additional resources:

Side Events

The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights convened two side events, within the framework of the Geneva Toxic Free Talks.

The right to science in the context of toxic substances | 22 September 2021

This side event discussed the Special Rapporteur report on the right to science in the context of toxic substances (A/HRC/48/61).

Plastics and human rights | 23 September 2021

In view of upcoming debates on whether to initiate negotiations toward a new plastics treaty at the next UN Environment Assembly in February 2022, this side event explored the impacts of plastics on human rights, as well as the elements of a human rights-based approach in a new legally binding global instrument. It  referred to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on “The stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights“, to be presented this fall to the UN General Assembly.

Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

Pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 45/8 and 16/2, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Pedro Arrojo Agudo, is encouraged to work on identifying challenges and obstacles to the full realization of those rights, as well as protection gaps thereto, and to continue to identify good practices and enabling factors in that regard.

In his new report, the Special Rapporteur presents his plan and vision for the first three years of his time as Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, from 2020 to 2023: a socio-environmental approach to the human rights to waterand sanitation.

Read press release →  Special Rapporteur on Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation to the Human Rights Council: 2.2 Billion People Are Without Guaranteed Access to Safe Drinking Water and 4.2 Billion Are Without Basic Sanitation

Human Rights and Food Systems

Ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit, to be held in New York on 23 September 2021, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food presented an interim report (A/76/237) to the General Assembly on 14 September 2021. The report stresses that although the summit has elevated public discussion concerning food systems reform, sufficient attention has not been paid to structural challenges facing the world’s food systems. It also points out the importance of transforming food systems if we are to solve the climate and biodiversity crises, and how a human rights-based approach can support this endeavor.

Approximately 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. Food systems also emit approximately one third of the world’s greenhouse gases. What has driven much of this damage has been intensive industrial agriculture (and export-oriented food policies).

Climate Change and the Right to Development

The Special Rapporteur on the right to development, Saad Alfarargi, presented his report on the intersection of climate change and the right to development on 17 September, saying that the global climate crisis, the increasing number of natural disasters and new global pandemics all had the potential to undo decades of development.  The Special Rapporteur warned that climate change was a global human rights threat multiplier.

Climate change has already impacted and would increasingly impact a wide range of internationally guaranteed human rights, including the right to development.  Among the groups disproportionately affected by climate change are indigenous peoples, internally displaced persons, persons with disabilities and women in vulnerable situations.  The communities and populations most affected by climate change were oftentimes the ones that did not participate in decision-making processes on actions that addressed the consequences of climate change. 

In the discussion with the Special Rapporteur, some speakers expressed their strong commitment to international agreements on climate change, adding that their States had been implementing climate change adaptation and mitigation measures for sustainable development.  The realisation of the right to development  as an inalienable human right was essential at this historic time, taking into account the growing gap between developing and developed countries, the effects of climate change, the imposition of unilateral coercive measures, the failure to comply with official development aid, as well as the heavy burden of foreign debt. 

Protection of Environmental Human Rights Defenders

In her update to the Council, on 13 September 2021, the High Commissioner announced the launch a joint Environmental Rights Programme in the coming months to enhance protection of environmental human rights defenders and civic space; integrate human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, into all relevant negotiations and UN processes. and help build national capacity to promote and protect human rights.

That same day, Global Witness sadly announced that in 2020, it recorded 227 lethal attacks against land and environmental defenders – an average of more than four people a week – making it once again the most dangerous year on record for people defending their homes, land and livelihoods, and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate.


Thematic Resolutions

  • The recognition of the right to a safe, clean, and healthy environment | Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia
  • The technical delivery of the establishment of a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change | Bahamas, the European Union, Fiji, Panama, Paraguay, Sudan, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands



Past HRC Sessions

Who to Follow on Twitter


@UN_HRC | UN Human Rights Council
@nazhatskhan | H.E. Amb. Nazhat Shameem Khan,Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations Office at Geneva, President of the Human Rights Council in 2021
@UNHumanRights | The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)
@mbachelet | United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
@SRtoxics | Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
@SREnvironment | Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
@RMIgeneva | Marshland Islands Permanent Mission in Geneva
@ISHRglobal | The International Service for Human Rights
@FranciscansIntl | Franciscans International
@Geneva_Academy | Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights
@hrw | Human Rights Watch
@URGthinktank | Universal Rights Group (URG)
@YvesLador | Special Representative of Earthjustice in Geneva
@duycks | Senior Attorney – Climate and Energy Programme at the Center for International Environmental Law
@katha_nina | Katharina Rall, Senior environment researcher at HumanRights Watch
@ChildRightsCnct | Child Rights Connect
@CERI_Coalition |
Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI)
@CRINwire | Child Rights International Network