The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) acknowledged Friday that access to a “safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” is a basic human right for the first time.
Despite criticism from some countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, ahead of the UNHCR session, the new resolution – proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland – passed with significant support of 43 votes, according to a press release. Russia, India, China and Japan abstained.
The vote – which comes weeks before the crucial COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland – also created a Special Rapporteur role to address the human rights impact of climate change. Special rapporteurs are independent human rights experts with “mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective,” according to the intergovernmental organization.
Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that “recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is about protecting people and planet – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.”
Bachelet added that she felt “gratified” by the way in which the decision “clearly recognizes environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.”
She continued: “Bold action is now required to ensure this resolution on the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social and environmental policies that will protect people and nature.”
The vote “acknowledges the damage inflicted by climate change and environmental destruction on millions of people across the world,” the press release added. “It also underlines that the most vulnerable segments of the population are more acutely impacted.”
Yolande Wright, Global Director of Child Poverty, Climate and Urban at Save the Children, hailed the “landmark” resolution in a statement, noting it could have “huge implications for children’s rights to a safe and sustainable future.”
“Both resolutions adopted today by the UN Human Rights Council show that finally, the people in charge are listening to what children are saying,” Wright added. “Children we work with are increasingly telling us that they want to see more action from leaders to limit this crisis.”
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, also welcomed the resolution, calling it “a breakthrough moment for environmental justice.”
“The decision, taken today in Geneva, is a shield for individuals and communities against a plethora of risks to their health and livelihoods. The recognition of the right to a healthy environment is a historic landmark in our ongoing work for social and environmental justice,” Andersen said in a statement.
“It is a message to one billion children at extremely high risk of the impacts of a changed climate: a healthy environment is your right. No one can take away nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate from you.”
This is not the first time the UN has been pushed to expand its institutions mandates to tackle climate change. At a UN Security Council meeting on September 24, Ireland put forward a proposal to add the threat posed by climate change to the Security Council’s routine agenda.