Last updated: 05 Sep 2023
Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined: a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential in the enjoyment of our human rights. On 28 July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly declared that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment. This landmark decision is the result of decades of mobilization of various stakeholders. States must now implement their commitments and scale up their efforts. This page aims at listing relevant information, research, data and/or press releases issued by our partners in Geneva and other institutions around the world.
Human Rights and the Environment
Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined: a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential in the enjoyment of our human rights; whilst polluted, hazardous and otherwise unhealthy environments potentially violate our human rights.
Environmental rights means any proclamation of a human right to environmental conditions of a specified quality. This means that they are not abstract, remote, irrelevant concepts; they are measurable, prominent and functional aspects of society and its ecology. More than 100 countries incorporate constitutional rights to a healthy environment. When environmental rights are violated, people and the planet suffer from reduced health and well-being.
On 28 July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution declaring that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment. This landmark decision is the result of decades of mobilization of various stakeholders. The resolution, based on a similar text adopted in October 2021 by the Human Rights Council, calls upon States, international organizations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all.
- General comment No. 26 (2023) on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change | Committee on the Rights of the Child | 22 August 2023
In this general comment, the Committee emphasizes the urgent need to address the adverse effects of environmental degradation, with a special focus on climate change, on the enjoyment of children’s rights, and clarifies the obligations of States to address environmental harm and climate change. The Committee also explains how children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child apply to environmental protection, and confirms that children have a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
- South Africa must tackle crude legacy of environmental racism and toxic exposure: UN expert | SR toxics | 11 August 2023
South Africa must redouble its efforts to tackle the crude legacy of pre-1994 environmental racism, including the abhorrent practice of intentionally situating landfills and polluting industries along racial lines and in low-income and migrant communities, a UN expert said.
- Wildfires Are Displacing Canada’s Indigenous Communities | New York Times | 29 July 2023
The country’s record-breaking fire season has led tens of thousands of Indigenous people to flee their homes and ravaged forests they rely on for sustenance.
- Global Climate Litigation Report: 2023 Status Review | UNEP | 27 July 2023
The report shows that people are increasingly turning to the courts to combat the climate crisis with 2,180 climate-related cases filed in 65 jurisdictions, as of December 2022. Children and youth, women’s groups, local communities, and Indigenous Peoples, among others, are taking a prominent role in bringing these cases and driving climate change governance reform in more and more countries around the world.
- Devastating rights violations against Indigenous people must end | UN News | 17 July 2023
Indigenous Peoples have the ancestral wisdom to guide humanity towards a more sustainable use of the Earth’s resources, yet they are systematically discriminated against and excluded, UN rights chief Volker Türk warned on Monday.
- Key human rights considerations on the impact of seabed mining | OHCHR | 10 July 2023
“States should commit not to proceed with plans for deep-sea mineral extraction until such a time as adequate safeguards, including sufficient scientific knowledge, exist to ensure such activities can be carried out in a way that respects, protects and fulfils human rights, including the human right to a healthy environment.”
The Role of International Geneva
Geneva is the main international hub on human rights issues and the majority of international universal human rights organs are based here.
United Nations Human Rights Council
The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. The UN Human Rights Council meets at the UN Office at Geneva.
Past HRC Sessions
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN entity on human rights and represent the world’s commitment to the promotion and protection of the full range of human rights and freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. OHCHR is home for secretariats of international human rights treaty bodies and the UN Human Rights Council.
Volker Türk is the High Commissioner for Human Rights, often known as the UN human rights chief.
The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. Each State party to a treaty has an obligation to take steps to ensure that everyone in the State can enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.
Currently, there 10 treaty bodies that are established by nine human rights international treaties and one optional protocol . The treaty bodies are composed of independent experts of recognized competence in human rights, who are nominated and elected for fixed renewable terms of four years by State parties.
Recently, UN human rights experts also welcomed the impending entry into force of the first environmental human rights treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement, lauding it as a ground-breaking pact to fight pollution and secure a healthy environment. The Escazú Agreement also includes strong protections for indigenous peoples and environmental human rights defenders, at a time when they are subject to unprecedented levels of violence.
Universal Periodic Review
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.
The Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters, hosted by UNECE, is also devoting a part of its work on the protection of environmental defenders. The Escazú convention in Latin America is working in the same direction.
There are other types of bodies on human rights such as the Special Procedures who are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.
Special procedure mandate-holders are non-paid and elected for 3-year mandates that can be renewed for another term. They help advance human rights, focusing on different themes, some of which are related to the environment.
Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
David R. Boyd is the current Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment with the following mandate:
- Continue to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment
- Continue to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices relating to human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policy making, especially in the area of environmental protection
- Promote and report on the realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and to disseminate his findings by, inter alia, continuing to give particular emphasis to practical solutions with regard to their implementation
- Work on identifying challenges and obstacles to the full realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and protection gaps thereto, including in the context of sustainable development
- Continue to contribute to and participate in conferences and meetings relevant to the mandate, including at the United Nations Environment Assembly
- Develop a dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to enhance public awareness of the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a environment
- Conduct country visits and to respond promptly to invitations from States
Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
Marcos A. Orellana is the current Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes (i.e. toxics). The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council and undertakes the following main tasks:
- Conduct research and analysis to be presented in separate thematic reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly;
- Undertake country visits and reporting on the situation in those countries in relation to the concerns of the mandate;
- Send letters to governments, business enterprises and other relevant entities regarding the actual or potential exposure of people to hazardous substances and wastes, and other related implications, such as those related to the lack of information, participation and access to remedies.
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change
Ian Fry is the first Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change with the following mandate:
- Study and identify how the adverse effects of climate change, affect the full and effective enjoyment of human rights
- Identify existing challenges, including financial challenges, of States’ efforts
- Synthesize knowledge, including indigenous and local traditional knowledge, and identify good practices, strategies and policies
- Promote and exchange views on lessons learned and best practices
- Raise awareness on the human rights affected by climate change, especially of persons living in developing countries particularly vulnerable
- Facilitate and contribute to the exchange of technical assistance, capacity-building and international cooperation in support of national efforts
- Integrate a gender-responsive, age-sensitive, disability inclusive and social-inclusion perspective
- Work closely with States and relevant stakeholders, including business enterprises to adopt a human rights perspective
At the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in October 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change (resolution 48/14). Thanks to the 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.
At the 49th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2022, Ian Fry was appointed. Following his consultation in Geneva with different civil society organizations and States, the Special Rapporteur has identified six thematic priorities that he will focus on during his mandate in his report at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council on 23 June 2022.
Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation
Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation with the following mandate:
- Focus on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation;
- Carry out thematic research
- Undertake country missions
- Collect good practices
- Work with development practitioners on the implementation of the rights to water and sanitation
On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human rights to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
Mary Lawlor is the current Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders with the following mandate:
- Promote the effective implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in cooperation and dialogue with Governments and other actors
- Study developments and challenges on the right to promote and protect human rights and seek, receive and respond to information on the situation of human rights defenders
- Recommend effective strategies to better protect human rights defenders
- Integrate a gender perspective and pay particular attention to women human rights defenders
In 2019, a resolution was adopted by consensus at the Human Right Council about the protection of the people who are acting for the environment. It has been followed by a roadmap to see how, at the international level, researchers, academics, states and civil society can join forces in order to make sure that the growing trends of attack against people who are defending the environment including official governmental civil servants, rangers and people from the civil society.
Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples
In 2001, the Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, as part of the system of thematic Special Procedures. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate was renewed by the Commission on Human Rights in 2004, and by the Human Rights Council in 2007. It was most recently renewed in 2019 in resolution 42/20. Francisco Cali Tzay was appointed Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in March 2020 and took up the role on 1 May 2020.
The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples was created to:
- Promote good practices, including new laws, government programs, and constructive agreements between indigenous peoples and states, to implement international standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples;
- Make recommendations and proposals on appropriate measures to prevent and remedy violations of the rights of indigenous peoples;
- Report on the human rights situations of indigenous peoples around the world;
- Address specific cases of alleged violations of indigenous peoples’ rights.
Right to a Healthy Environment
What is the Right to a Healthy Environment?
The adoption by the General Assembly (GA), the principal policy-making body of the UN, of the resolution recognizing the human right to a healthy environment marked a landmark moment which sends a powerful message that there is widespread, worldwide support for this right – which is already recognized in 156 countries at the national and regional levels.
The resolution on the right to a healthy environment was the result of States’ commitment on environmental issues, many years of advocacy and collaboration by national human rights institutions, civil society organizations, Indigenous Peoples, children and young people, and business actors, among others, and supported by UN entities. Putting rights at the centre of addressing the triple planetary crisis – climate change, biodiversity and nature loss, and pollution – is more important now than ever and an imperative for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
What are the elements of the Right to a Healthy Environment?
While there is not a universally agreed definition of the right to a healthy environment, the right is generally understood to include substantive and procedural elements. The substantive elements include:
- clean air;
- a safe and stable climate;
- access to safe water and adequate sanitation;
- healthy and sustainably produced food;
- non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play; and
- healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.
The procedural elements include:
- access to information,
- the right to participate in decision-making,
- and access to justice and effective remedies, including the secure exercise of these rights free from reprisals and retaliation.
Realizing the right to a healthy environment16 also requires international cooperation, solidarity and equity in environmental action, including resource mobilization, as well as recognition of extraterritorial jurisdiction over human rights harms caused by environmental degradation.
A Historic Resolution at the Human Rights Council
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“, has been signed by more than 1,150 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.
On 9 March 2021, over 60 nations urged the HRC 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. Simultaneously, the UN Environment Programme delivered a joint statement on behalf of 15 UN entities calling for global recognition, implementation, and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
At the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, in October 2021, States recognized, for the first time, that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. Resolution A/HRC/48/13 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.
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 →
A Historic Resolution at the UN General Assembly
On 28 July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment. This landmark decision (A/RES/76/300), co-sponsored by 117 member States, is the result of decades of mobilization of various stakeholders. The resolution, based on a similar text adopted in October 2021 by the Human Rights Council, calls upon States, international organizations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. → See countries’ positions
Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now.
– Michelle Bachelet, 28 July 2022
Recognition in Other Bodies
Council of Europe
In a Recommendation on human rights and the protection of the environment adopted on 27 September 2022, the Council of Europe calls on its 46 member states to actively consider recognising, at national level, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as a human right. → Read the resolution
Pollution and Hazardous Wastes
Though integral to almost all sectors of society, the lack of environmentally sound management of chemicals and waste can have long-lasting negative impacts on human health, society, and on the environment. Such negative impacts violate our human right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Stakeholders, particularly States and businesses, must ensure that this right is upheld when conducting activities and operations on the ground.
Right to a Non-Toxic Environment
At the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment and the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights presented a joint report on “The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment: non-toxic environment“.
The report describes the ongoing toxification of people and the planet, which is creating “sacrifice zones”: extremely contaminated areas where vulnerable and marginalized groups bear a disproportionate burden of the health, human rights and environmental consequences of exposure to pollution and hazardous substances. The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment presented these findings, highlighting State obligations, business responsibilities and good practices related to ensuring a non-toxic environment by preventing pollution, eliminating the use of toxic substances and rehabilitating contaminated sites. → Read the report.
Toxic Free Talks
The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights reports every Fall to the Council and to the UN General Assembly on issues related to his mandate. The Geneva Toxic Free Talks aim to harness the opportunity of this moment of the year to reflect on the challenges posed by the production, use and dissemination of toxics and on how Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working in reversing the toxic tide.
Plastics and Human Rights
Plastic pollution is not only a threat to our environment, it is also a threat to people, as every stage of the plastic lifecycle impact human rights. These impacts include toxic pollution released in manufacturing, exposure to toxic additives in plastic consumer products, waste mismanagement, disinformation campaign about the risks of and solutions to plastic pollution, and more. Human rights principles are thus critical to support legitimate and effective responses. → Read more on plastics and human rights
Air Pollution and Human Rights
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide each year and that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. In addition, air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and older persons.
Poor air quality has implications for a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, food, housing and an adequate standard of living. Air pollution also clearly violates the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.
Air pollution is a preventable problem. The solutions − laws, standards, policies, programmes, investments and technologies − are known. Implementing these solutions will of course entail large investments, but the benefits of fulfilling the right to breathe clean air for all of humanity are incalculable. → Read more on air pollution and human rights
Right to Science in the Context of Toxic Substances
Science provides the international community with knowledge about the risks and harms posed by hazardous substances on human health and environment, and thus enables the elaboration of evidence-based policies to address them. Science-based policies also protect the range of human rights that are compromised when individuals and communities are exposed to hazardous substances and waste.
The UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, in his annual report to the Human Rights Council at its 48th session, focused on the human right to science with regard to the risks and harms associated with the life cycle of hazardous substances and wastes, examining the dynamics and interconnections between scientific progress, the diffusion of scientific information and the science-policy interface.
The right to science, as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, implies the availability and accessibility of accurate scientific information to the general public and specific stakeholders. In the context of toxic substances, the right to science provides humanity with the tools to confront the severe toxification of the planet and its people. It requires that governments correct scientific disinformation. It implies an enabling environment where scientific freedoms may be realized and where governments foster needed scientific research on toxic substances that endanger human health and the environment. → Read more on the right to science in the context of toxic substances
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 Rapporteurs contributed with reports on specific thematic angles within their mandates.
Climate Change at the Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council has contributed to raising awareness of the links between human rights and climate change by successive and targeted clarifications of the ways climate change affects human rights, including through the adoption of a series of resolutions related to climate change and human rights. The OHCHR also published a factsheet on the “Frequently asked questions on human rights and climate change”
History of the Mandate of the Special Rapporteur
In 2010, an alliance of civil society organizations has called upon the HRC to establish 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. This call was reiterated by the Climate Vulnerable Forum – an alliance of States highly impacted by climate change – at the 2019 Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and in many other contexts by various groups of States and civil society organizations.
In 2020, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Franciscans International (FI), in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Geneva Office, launched a series of activities to assess how a new UN Special Rapporteur mandated on climate change could effectively support the work of civil society and Indigenous Peoples organizations already working on these issues. Based on regional consultations around the world, they published a report highlighting key recommendations for the institutions of the mandate.
The call for a mandate on human rights and climate change was reiterated at HRC46 by a coalition of 55 states in a joint statement. The Geneva Interfaith Forum on Climate Change, Environment, and Human Rights – a group of faith-based organizations that gather to reaffirm the responsibility of each faith and spiritual tradition to care for the environment – also presented a statement in support of the mandate.
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 48th session of the Human Rights Council, and was adopted with 42 votes in favor, 1 against and 4 abstentions. At the 49th session of the Council, the Council has appointed Ian Fry (Tuvalu) as the first mandate holder for this newly established procedure for a period of three years.
The Human Rights Council’s recognition of the right to clean, healthy and sustainable environment is crucial to tackling the unprecedented biodiversity crisis that is threatening human well-being, human rights and the future of life on Earth, even three decades after the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It recognizes that the protection of the environment is equally important for the enjoyment of human rights, and that our action to protect biodiversity and ecosystems is critical. As biodiversity loss is caused by human activity, it has enormous implications for human rights and human well-being.
Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework
The 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD (COP 15) are underway, Parties are committed to negotiate a new global biodiversity framework that can become the blueprint for life on Earth. The draft post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) highlights the need for transformative change for people and nature supported by a rights-based approach to biodiversity action. To survive and thrive on our planet, commitments to protect human rights in light of biodiversity protection need to be meaningfully reflected throughout the framework.
Human action has placed biodiversity – and those who depend on it – under unprecedented threat with little regard for human rights, pushing our planet to a catastrophic breaking point not just for humanity but for all life. Protecting nature is a Human Rights imperative.
Human Rights are a catalyst for the changes needed to live in harmony with nature. I urge COP15 to refer explicitly to the right to a healthy environment – as a matter of obligation, policy coherence and effectiveness.
The OHCHR and UNEP have published a joint Key Messages on human rights and biodiversity that provide an outline on how this is possible, where participation, non-discrimination, and equality are critical.
Moreover, in parallel to the 49th session of the Human Rights Council and the Geneva meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), various events have addressed biodiversity in human rights. Stakeholders are encouraging member stated to apply a human-rights based approach in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
The key messages convened:
- A human rights-based approach means, in simple terms, that biodiversity policies, governance and management do not violate human rights.
- Indigenous peoples and local communities’ ways of life and territories are part of the solution.
- The rights of women and girls to participate are enshrined in the Convention.
- The rights of younger and future generations are intergenerational and sacred. Transformative education and full engagement of children and youth are essential.
- Review, reporting, and monitoring constitute critical elements of this framework.
- The need for an additional inter-sessional meeting dedicated to the monitoring framework should be called.
The third brief of the CBD Human Rights in Biodiversity Working Group – Implementing a human rights-based approach to biodiversity conservation: What is urgently needed to effectively adopt a human rights-based approach across the implementation, monitoring and reporting of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework – was launched mid-March and presented at a CBD side event, Applying a Human Rights-based Approach in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, 0n 19 March.
A second side event, Integrating Human Rights in the Future of Biodiversity Action, built upon the recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right by Human Rights Council resolution 48/13, shared ideas for a post-2020 GBF that promotes rights-based action to protect biodiversity. The event took place on 22 March.
Environmental Human Rights Defenders
Environmental human rights defenders are those who strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment. However, evidence suggests that they remain highly vulnerable and under attack across the globe. As the field of human rights obligations related to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment expands, the need to protect those who protect our environmental rights also becomes more urgent.
According to the United Nations, environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) are “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna.”
Environmental defenders, many of whom are part of or represent indigenous peoples, remain highly vulnerable and under attack across the globe. Evidence suggests that as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against EHRDs also increases, whether through assaults, murders, intimidation, harassment, stigmatization, and criminalization.
As the field of human rights obligations related to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment expands, the need to protect those who protect our environmental rights also becomes more urgent.
Business and Human Rights
Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined due to the environmental nature of some human rights, which have been progressively more recognized and protected. If we are to tackle environmental challenges without leaving anyone behind, businesses must respect both the environment and environmental rights, and ensure they are not violated in their conduct of business operations and beyond..
As Geneva is the main international hub on human rights issues, where majority of international universal human rights organs are based, this update provides a brief overview on the connections among business, environment and human rights, and the role International Geneva plays in strengthening such links.
Human Rights Day | 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Every year on 10 December, the world celebrates Human Rights Day, the day when, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decades since this landmark occasion, human rights have become more recognized and more guaranteed across the globe. The UDHR has since served as the foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection that today focuses also on vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and migrants.
However, the promise of the UDHR, of dignity and equality in rights, has been under a sustained assault in recent years. As the world faces challenges new and ongoing – pandemics, conflicts, exploding inequalities, morally bankrupt global financial system, racism, climate change – the values, and rights enshrined in the UDHR provide guideposts for our collective actions that do not leave anyone behind.
In the face of environmental degradation, including the triple crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, equality for all also means advancing the right to a healthy environment and climate justice. These impacts disproportionately impacts persons, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations, and exacerbate existing inequalities that negatively affect the human rights of present and future generations. As follow-up to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, International Geneva is taking urgent action to respect, protect and fulfill this right. Such action should be the cornerstone of a new human rights-based economy that will produce a green recovery from COVID-19 and a just transition.
Human Rights 75 Initiative
The 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated on 10 December 2023. Ahead of this milestone, starting on Human Rights Day on 10 December 2022, the UN Human Rights Office has launched a year-long campaign UDHR 75 to showcase its legacy, relevance and activism. The Human Rights 75 initiative seeks to shift the needle of understanding and action towards greater knowledge of the universality of the UDHR and the activism associated with it.
Human Rights 75 is an initiative whose three main goals focus on universality, progress and engagement under the leadership of UN Human Rights, together with its partners. The initiative culminates in a high-level event in December 2023 that will announce global pledges and ideas for a vision for the future of human rights.
United Nations Environment Programme and Human Rights
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) works to advance the inclusive and effective implementation of environmental rights law through, protecting environmental defenders, strengthening legal frameworks, building capacities of relevant stakeholders and advancing universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment.
As environmental issues have grown within the work of the Human Rights Council, there has been an agreement between the High Commissioner and the Executive Director of UNEP. One of the outcomes of this close collaboration is the publication on the response to Covid called: “Human Rights, the Environment and Covid-19”. It gives the keys elements on how the environment and human rights are interlinked in what happened with Covid and also with the development of the Covid response.
UNEP and OHCHR Agreement
In 2019, UNEP and the OHCHR have prioritized efforts to promote and protect environmental and human rights with the signing of a new cooperation agreement. The heads of the two UN bodies agreed that although more than 150 countries have recognized the human right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence, or through regional agreements, significantly more work is needed to inform policy-makers, justice institutions and the public on the various ways they can take action to uphold this right.
Strengthened cooperation will aim to drive better protection of environmental human rights defenders and their families, who frequently face violence – including killings and sexual violence, smear campaigns, and other forms of intimidation. The partnership will also encourage greater acceptance by leaders and governments of the human right to a healthy environment pursuing efforts toward its global recognition. It will seek to increase support to national governments to promote human rights-based policies, particularly in terms of sustainable management of natural resources, development planning, and action to combat climate change.
To support the growing community of practice between the two entities, UNEP and OHCHR are compiling updates in the Environment Rights Bulletin. It showcases best practices related to processes at the country, regional and global levels of relevance to the human rights-environment nexus. The latest edition published in October 2021 provides global updates and resources, as well as a focused section on biodiversity prepared on the occasion of the opening of CBD COP15.
Human Rights & Environment @ UN General Assembly
During the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, the UNGA’s Third Committee held a dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteurs on the environment, toxics and climate change, presenting their new reports to the Assembly. The discussion included interesting questions from States and insights on advancing the right to a healthy environment. → Read the discussion outcome
- SR Environment Report A77/284: The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment: a catalyst for accelerated action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
Press Release: Trillions needed to close finance gap on Sustainable Development Goals, says UN expert
- SR Toxics Report Report A/77/183: The impact of toxic substances on the human rights of indigenous peoples
Press Release: Exposure to toxic substances a form of environmental violence against indigenous peoples: UN expert
- SR Climate Report A/77/226: Promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change
Press Release: Climate change the greatest threat the world has ever faced, UN expert warns
- Other reports:
- SR on contemporary forms of racism Report A/77/2990: Ecological crisis climate justice and racial justice
- SR on the rights of migrants Report A/77/189: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants
Press Release: States must address impact of climate change on human rights of migrants: UN Special Rapporteur
- SR on violence against women and girls Report A/77/136: Violence against women and girls in the context of the climate crisis, including environmental degradation and related disaster risk mitigation and response
Press Release: Climate change is a threat multiplier for women and girls: UN expert
UNITAR / UNEP / InforMEA
The Introduction to Human Rights and the Environment course covers the relationship between human rights and the environment; explains the bases for the application of human rights to environmental issues, and the procedural and substantive obligations relating to the environment; and gives examples of constitutions that have incorporated a right to a healthy environment, good practices in procedural and substantive environmental protection.
The course focuses on the crisis of the environmental defenders.
Articolo12 / Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI) / Terre des Hommes (TdH) / UNEP
The online resource is a free training tool for young people to learn about and stand up for their environmental rights.
- The Environmental Negotiation Leaps of 2022 | Ian Fry | IISD | 16 February 2023
SR climate change and human rights writes on the environmental milestones of 2022 and on IISD’s new report The State of Global Environmental Governance.
- The Universal Declaration: a catalyst for environmental human rights action | OHCHR | 7 December 2022
- “When it comes to human rights, we need all hands on deck,” says new UN Human Rights Chief | OHCHR | 17 October 2022
- Human Rights and the Environment | UNEP | 9 December 2020
Climate and Human Rights
- Human rights, climate change and migration | OHCHR and climate change
- Joint Statement at HRC53 on the importance of transparent, inclusive, safe and meaningful participation by civil society in international climate discussions | EU, on behalf of 70 States | 3 July 2023
- Funds for world’s climate hotspots woefully neglect the needs of children, new report finds | UNICEF | 22 June 2023
- Joint Statement: UAE Human Rights Record Ahead of COP28 | Human Rights Watch | 1 May 2023
- States must step up climate action now, before it is too late: UN expert | OHCHR | 23 March 2023
- Status of climate applications before the European Court | European Court of Human Rights | 9 February 2023
- Human Rights and Climate Change | Interview with SR Ian Fry and Therese Arnasen | CB Stories – PCCB Network Podcast | 16 December 2022
- Egypt: UN experts alarmed by harassment of civil society actors at COP27 climate summit | OHCHR | 18 November 2022
- Human Rights implications of COVID-19 response measures in the context of climate change | OHCHR | 16 November 2022
- Secretary-General’s remarks to High-Level opening of COP27 | UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres | 7 November 2022 | Video
- What Does a Human Rights-based Approach to Addressing Loss and Damage Look Like?: Key Demands for the Outcomes of Cop 27 at the Intersection of Loss and Damage and Human Rights | ESCR-Net, Human Rights & Climate Change Working Group, Loss & Damage Collaboration | 1 November 2022
- Egypt: UN experts alarmed by restrictions on civil society ahead of climate summit | OHCHR | 7 October 2022
- Australia should compensate Torres Strait Islanders for climate crisis failure, UN says | | Adam Morton and Paul Karp | The Guardian | 23 September 2022
- Findings of consultations with children and young people informing General Comment No. 26 | Child Rights Environment Report
- Bangladesh: First visit by UN human rights expert on climate change | OHCHR | 29 August 2022
- HRC Advisory Committee Concludes its 28th Session – Advances Work on New Technologies for Climate Protection and on Racial Justice and Equality | 28th Session of HRC Advisory Committee | 12 August 2022
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants on climate change, human rights, and migration | A/77/189 | 19 July 2022
- Violence against women and girls in the context of the climate crisis, including environmental degradation and related disaster risk mitigation and response | Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences | A/77/136 | 11 July 2022
- Promoting Human Rights in Climate Action: A Global Stocktake Informed by Human Rights | CIEL
- Climate change expert brings passion, experience to new post | OHCHR | 29 April 2022
- UN appoints first independent expert on climate change and human rights | Interview, UN News | 25 April 2022
- Climate Crisis and Displacement: From Commitment to Action | Platform on Disaster Displacement | March 2022
- States’ Human Rights Obligations in the Context of Climate Change: Guidance Provided by the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies | CIEL | March 2022
- A UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & Climate Change? Regional Perspectives | CIEL | January 2021
- The Human Rights Impact of Climate Change: An International and Local Challenge | Michelle Bachelet | Speech at HRC49 Side Event | 14 March 2022
- Addressing the adverse impact of Climate Change on the full and effective enjoyment of human rights | HRC48 Side Event | 15 September 2021
- Safe Climate Report (A/74/161) | SR Environment
- Frequently Asked Questions on Human Rights and Climate Change, Fact Sheet No. 38 | OHCHR
- Concept note of the General comment on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change | OHCHR Committee on the Rights of a Child
- About General Comment No. 26 on children’s rights and the environment
- Summary of the panel discussion on the human rights of older persons in the context of climate change – Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/49/61)
Biodiversity and Human Rights
- Adopting a Human Rights-based Approach to Ecosystem-based Adaptation: A Contribution to Sustainable Development | UNEP | 23 January 2023
- Advancing a Human Rights-Based Approach to the Global Biodiversity Framework | OHCHR & UN EMG | December 2022
- Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework: Urgent need to protect nature and human rights, say UN experts | OHCHR | 6 December 2022
- Open letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework | OHCHR High Commissioner | 2 December 2022
- A Rights-based Path for People and Planet – proposals for realising human rights in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework | Human Rights and Biodiversity Working Group | 30 November 2022
- Integrating Human Rights in National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (working draft) | OHCHR | March 2022
- Human Rights and Biodiversity | UNEP & OHCHR
[العربية] [中文] [ English] [Français] [Русский] [Español]
- CBD Human Rights in Biodiversity Working Group Briefs | FPP, CBD Alliance, GYBN, ICCA Consortium, Natural Justice, SwedBio, Tebtebba Foundation, WWF, Friends of the Earth International, CBD Women’s Caucus and Women4Biodiversity)
- Brief 1: Human Rights in Biodiversity working group: Human Rights in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework: Options for integrating a human-rights based approach to achieve the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity
- Brief 2: Applying a human rights-based approach: Guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework
- Brief 3: Implementing a human rights-based approach to biodiversity conservation: What is urgently needed to effectively adopt a human rights-based approach across the implementation, monitoring and reporting of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework
- How to Integrate Human Rights into Biodiversity Conservation in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework | SwedBio
- Human Rights-Based Approaches to Conserving Biodiversity: Equitable, Effective and Imperative” | A policy brief from the UN Special rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment | February 2021
- Human right to a healthy environment for a thriving earth – Handbook for weaving human rights, SDGs and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework | Stockholm Resilience Centre Handbook | May 2019
- Environmental Rights Bulletin – Special Theme: Biodiversity | UNEP & OHCHR | Third Edition, October 2021
Toxics, Pollution and Human Rights
- Humanity cannot afford to aggravate the toxification of the planet: UN special rapporteur | Global Times | 11 June 2023
- Exploring key human rights issues arising from plastic pollution in the tourism, fisheries, and waste management sectors – through a gender lens | IUCN | 16 March 2023
- Key human rights considerations for the negotiations to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution | OHCHR | 30 November 2022
- Global Plastics Treaty: Opportunity to Protect Rights | Human Rights Watch | 23 November 2022
- German citizens sue government as air pollution hits health | Client Earth | 26 September 2022
- Human Rights Council: Mercury, small-scale gold mining and human rights | Minamata Convention | 22 September 2022
- “Taranto zona di sacrificio”, il manifesto shock dei Genitori tarantini contro l’inquinamento dell’ex Ilva | La Reppublica | 30 August 2022
Citizens and associations held a flash mob in front of the poster that quotes the UN SR Environment report of 12 January 2022. Zaninelli: “The United Nations dossier is passed over in silence”. (Reed also UN SR Toxics Press Release of 13 December 2021)
- Polluted planet: UN expert urges ambitious, urgent action to tackle human rights violations | OHCHR | 10 March 2022
- Millions suffering in deadly pollution ‘sacrifice zones’, warns UN expert | The Guardian | Damien Gayle | 10 March 2022
- UN environment expert: the world’s toxic wastelands have millions of residents (Interview with SR Environment) | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 10 March 2022
- The Right to Live in a Non-Toxic Environment | Marcos Orellana, David Boyd | Rosa Luxembourg Foundation | 18 March 2022
- Toxics exposure: ‘Follow the science’ to protect lives – UN expert | SR Toxics | 21 September 2021
- NGOs affirm the Right to Science is Critical for Protecting the Range of Human Rights | CIEL | 21 September 2021
- Developing a Global Science-Policy Body on Chemicals and Waste
- UN expert slams chemical industries for spreading fake news about risks | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 22 September 2021
Right to a Healthy Environment
- Unpacking the Right to a Healthy Environment: How national and regional laws and jurisprudence clarify the scope and content of the universal right | Universal Rights Group | 4 July 2023
- UN Committee on the Rights of the Child | The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognized that all children have a fundamental human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, adopting General Comment 26 on Children’s rights and the environment with a focus on climate change.
- The Committee of Ministers calls on member states to recognise the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right | Council of Europe | 30 May 2023
In a Recommendation on human rights and the protection of the environment, the Council of Europe calls on its 46 member states to actively consider recognising, at national level, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as a human right.
- UN Special Rapporteur calls for accelerated, gender-transformative climate and environmental action | IUCN | 3 March 2023
- What is the Right to a Healthy Environment? | UNDP, OHCHR, UNEP | 5 January 2023
- Environmental Justice: Securing Our Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment | UNDP | 17 June 2022
- What now? Options for next steps following UN recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment | Marc Limon | URG | 7 November 2022
- Does the right to a healthy environment need a treaty? | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 21 October 2022
- Setting a Roadmap for a Feminist Green Transformation: Using Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights as Guiding Tools for a Gender-Just Transition | GI-ESCR | 3 October 2022
- Marshall Islands takes US nuclear legacy to the Human Rights Council | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 3 October 2022
- Committee of Ministers calls on member states to recognise the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right | Council of Europe | 27 September 2022
- UNGA Declaration on the Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment and what this could mean for us in Africa | Dale Pascal | Natural Justice | 8 September 2022
- Press conference by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet | 25 August 2022
On her last press conference as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, speaks about the work of the office in advancing the recently recognized human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
- What companies need to know about the new human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment | Catie Shavin | GBI | 4 August 2022
- Is the U.N. declaration on a ‘human right to a healthy environment’ a meaningless gesture? | William F. Felice | Tampa Bay Times | 16 July 2022
- UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right | UN News | 28 July 2022
- The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment | A/RES/76/300 | UN General Assembly | 28 June 2022
- The UN just declared a universal human right to a healthy, sustainable environment – here’s where resolutions like this can lead | Joel E. Correia | The Conversation | 5 August 2022
- With 161 Votes in Favour, 8 Abstentions, General Assembly Adopts Landmark Resolution Recognizing Clean, Healthy, Sustainable Environment as Human Right | UN News | 28 July 2022
- Why the UN General Assembly must back the right to a healthy environment | Interview with SR Environment | UN News | 22 July 2022
- Historic UN resolution recognizes healthy environment is a human right | UNDP | 28 July 2022
- Emergency Measure: Making a Healthy Environment a Human Right | Katie Puckett | The Possible | June 2022
- Environment: Millions of lives at stake amid unprecedented challenges – UN experts | Stockholm+50 Press Release | SR Environment, SR Toxics, SR Indigenous Peoples, SR Climate Change | 30 May 2022
- Catastrophic environmental impacts of conflicts jeopardize human rights around the world – UN expert | World Environment Day Press Release | SR Environment | 3 June 2022
- Major win for environmental rights at UN Human Rights Council | Geneva Solutions | 8 October 2021
- Why all human rights depend on a healthy environment | David Boyd | The Conversation | 27 October 2020
Environmental Human Rights Defenders
- Detention of environmental human rights defender Hoang Thi Minh Hong | UNEP | 17 June 2023
- How environmental conflicts hurt — and motivate — women activists | Grist | 15 June 2023
- ISHR submits a petition supporting environmental defender Anexa Alfred Cunningham | ISHR | 5 June 2023
- Un expert de l’ONU salue le rejet par le Vatican de la « doctrine de la découverte » | UN News | 10 April 2023
- UN rapporteur on environmental defenders: ‘The French state’s response seemed largely disproportionate’ | Le Monde | 31 March 2023
Michel Forst elaborated on this topic in an op-ed on the criminalisation of environmental defenders.
- Brazil: Ratify Regional Environment Pact | Stand with Environmental Defenders in the Escazu Agreement | Human Rights Watch | 23 March 2023
- It’s time to stop threats against human rights defenders and start celebrating the vital work they do | Mary Lawlor | Irish Examiner | 15 March 2023
- HRC52: Support consensus renewal of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders | ISHR | 27 February 2023
- Costa Rica pulls back on U.N.-backed climate agreement named in its honor | Alvaro Murillo | Reuters | 2 February 2023
- Here’s How We Protect Earth’s Defenders | Mie Hoejris Dahl | Atmos | 4 January 2023
- UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders presents his vision for mandate to ensure protection under the Aarhus Convention | UNECE | 24 November 2022 | [Full statement presented by SR Michel Forst on 23 November 2022]
- Environmentalists in danger | DW Documentary | 29 October 2022
- A deadly decade for land and environmental activists – with a killing every two days | Global Witness | 29 September 2022
- UN experts slam Belarus for exiting environmental rights convention | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 11 August 2022
- Understanding and responding to the protection needs of climate activists and movements | URG | May 2022
Responding to the Needs of Environmental Defenders and Civil Society | UNEP | 22 April 2020
- Human Rights Council Discusses the Right to Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment and Foreign Debt | OHCHR | 2 March 2020
- University of Geneva: Workshop and Public Roundtable – Supporting Environmental Defenders
- ICCA Consortium supports the global movement for indigenous peoples’ & local communities’ collective territories of life (ICCAs). These are under increasing threat, as are their custodians. The Consortium is attempting to respond via several initiatives.
- International Land Coalition: a global alliance of civil society & intergovernmental organizations working together to realize land governance for & with people at country level, responding to needs & protecting rights of those who live on & from the land.
- In 2018, UNEP launched the Promoting Greater Protection for Environmental Defenders Policy.
- In 2018, UNEP also launched the Environmental Rights Initiative, aiming at bringing environmental protection nearer to the people by assisting state and non-state actors to Promote, Protect and Respect Environmental Rights.
- Environment-rights.org is a collaborative resource portal for environmental human rights defenders. It is designed as a ‘living’ platform, constantly updated and expanded.
- Not1More (N1M) is an environmental campaign group founded in 2016 that supports frontline environmental defenders and investigates the root causes of environmental conflict.
- The Zero Tolerance Initiative, launched in 2019, seeks to address violence, intimidation and killings of indigenous people & other human rights defenders in global supply chains.
Business and Human Rights
- EU: Major Step For ‘Deforestation-Free’ Trade: Companies Required to Respect Environment, Human Rights in Supply Chain | Human Rights Watch | 19 April 2023
A new EU law establishes the legal requirements for European businesses regarding biodiversity loss and human rights abuses embedded in their international supply chains.
- Human rights and environmental due diligence laws crucial to combat irresponsible business activities – UN expert | 4 July 2022
The Special Rapporteur launched a brief containing a set of recommended elements for human rights and environmental due diligence laws.
- What’s next: the legacy of the UN Water Conference | SR Rights to Water and Sanitation | 5 April 2023
- Open-Letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on priorities for human rights-based water governance at the UN 2023 Water Conference | OHCHR | 17 March 2023
- Armed Conflicts, Environment and Human Rights | Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue | 20 October 2022
Climate Change and Human Rights
Toxics and Human Rights
Biodiversity and Human Rights
Right to a Healthy Environment
30 March 2022 | WED 2022 Celebration
Environmental Human Rights Defenders