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Clean environment could become U.N. human right. Not so fast, say U.S., Britain By Reuters


© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Villagers walk on a street as the haze shrouds Pulau Mentaro village in Muaro Jambi, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, September 15, 2015..REUTERS/Beawiharta

Valerie Volcovici, Kate Abnett, Emma Farge

GENEVA, (Reuters) – The United States and Britain are not supporting a UN proposal to recognize the right of everyone to a safe and healthy environment. It is being criticized that this undermines their pledges for the Glasgow conference on climate change.

Diplomats state that the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, which is headquartered in Geneva, will likely adopt the resolution by this week. This even though an opposition country may call a vote. Supporters include Costa Rica (the Maldives), Switzerland and Switzerland.

Environmental defenders claim that if the resolution is adopted it will force countries to sign up to the over 100 other nations who have recognized a right to healthy environments. The resolution is not binding but lawyers argue that it will set norms for campaigners and assist them in developing arguments in climate case cases.

The World Health Organization estimates that some 13.7 million deaths a year, or around 24.3 % of the total, are due to environmental risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure.

Marc Limon, a think tank from Universal Rights Group, stated that “at national level this right has been demonstrated to empower people, especially those most vulnerable to climate damage or change”

This could explain why certain governments, such as the U.S. and Russia don’t like it.” 

Following the discussion, observers have criticised London’s host status for the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP26 in Glasgow next month.

Sebastien duyck, Center for International Environmental Law campaign manager for human rights on climate change said that the Center for International Environmental Law must reflect the leadership in climate policy across all diplomacy agreements – it is much more than just hosting the COP.

“The UK must support the resolution in its entirety to ensure that it does not get undermined,” he said.

Yasmine Ahmed from the UK, director of Human Rights Watch said that she hopes Britain will “come to its senses” as the resolution is supported “many more vulnerable countries to climate change, which are the exact countries (Prime Minister Boris) Johnson promised to support.”

A spokesperson from the UK mission to Geneva stated that “The UK has been a leader in climate action and we are currently focusing on a successful COP26 at Glasgow.”

While we do have legal concerns regarding recognising this right in such a way, we still engage constructively and with the Human Rights Council’s principal authors.”

An inquiry by The American Mission was unsuccessful.

Sources following the talks report that Washington mentioned legal concerns in the discussion about the resolution.

While the United States does not have a current Council membership, they are vying to get one. However, observers can join in on debates.

The U.S.’s lack of support for climate change is not in line with the President Joe Biden Administration’s commitment to playing a global leadership position on this issue. Washington, however, has always been reluctant to create new rights or ratify legally binding treaties.

Sources following talks reveal that Russia and Brazil are opposing the resolution, arguing it needs to be amended.


David Boyd (U.N. Special Reporter on Human Rights and Environment), feels that the U.N. proposal is overdue. This U.N. proposal was initially conceived in 1990s.

He stated that “the evidence is overwhelming” that environmental problems directly affect people’s enjoyment and respect for fundamental human rights.

Without naming the countries, he said that “there are certainly countries who have a deep-rooted desire to maintain the status quo”

Past U.N. Resolutions, such as the one from 2010 regarding water and sanitation rights, have inspired countries like Tunisia’s to adopt legislation to enshrine it into their domestic laws.

Aspects of 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights were later made law by an international treaty.

The number of cases arising from climate change litigation has increased globally over the last few years. More people are citing human rights as a support to their claims.

Remo Klinger (lawyer for the environmental nonprofit Deutsche Umwelthilfe) said that this resolution is an example “soft law”, which can be used to improve cases. The group organised a successful legal case that in April forced Germany to tighten its climate policies.

Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel to the Urgenda Foundation which won a landmark climate case against the Dutch government in 2019, said the resolution could help courts interpret the right in future cases.

He said that although the right is in numerous constitutions, judges don’t have much experience with how to use it.

This week, the Council’s 47 members will also decide on a parallel resolution that was brought in by Britain and other countries and supported by Britain. It would establish a special climate-change rapporteur.

Michelle Bachelet (UN rights officer) opened the September session of Council by calling environmental hazards “the greatest challenge to human right in this era”.