Published February 2, 2024
On the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a diverse, people-powered, global coalition made history at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The Global Coalition of Civil Society, Indigenous Peoples, Social Movements, and Local Communities for the Universal Recognition of the Right to a Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment was awarded the prestigious UN Human Rights Prize for its vital role in advocating for the recognition of this right by the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
The Power of Collective Organizing
The recognition of the coalition serves to highlight the crucial role and power of collective organizing in international policymaking, and it underscores the paramount importance of the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
A delegation representing the diversity of the coalition’s 1,400 organizations from every region of the world accepted the prize in a ceremony with UN leadership, including General Assembly President Dennis Francis, Secretary-General António Guterres, and High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.
The Human Rights prize is the United Nations’ top human rights honor, and it is awarded only once every five years. This year is the first time since its inception that it has been granted to a global coalition. CIEL is an active member of the coalition.
The coalition was recognized alongside four other recipients defending human rights around the world. Previous award winners include Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan), Sister Dorothy Stang (Brazil), Sergio Vieira de Mello (Brazil), Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (USA), and Nelson Mandela (South Africa).
Why the Right to a Healthy Environment Matters
In October 2021, after decades of advocacy by civil society; Indigenous Peoples organizations; and leading States like Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland; the UN Human Rights Council recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Then, in July 2022, the UNGA recognized the right, with 161 countries voting in favor and no votes against. Through this vote, the UN affirmed that a safe and livable environment is not just sound policy — it is a fundamental and universal human right.
This historic victory for humanity was more than fifty years in the making, and it is one of only a few times in human history that the UN has recognized a new human right.
The milestone comes at a time of intersecting planetary crises — the climate emergency, the collapse of ecosystems, and toxic threats that are pushing us beyond planetary boundaries, with widespread impacts on the full scope of human rights. And these crises are most dramatically affecting frontline communities who have the least historical responsibility for causing them. This universal recognition provides one more tool for communities as they defend their rights and the environment, and opens new opportunities to strengthen accountability in the years ahead.
Since July 2022, there has been significant progress in realizing the right to a healthy environment. The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, reflected on this progress, noting strides at the national, regional, and global levels. His key observations include:
Global Recognition: At the global level, the right to a healthy environment has been mainstreamed in international governance, including in decisions from key international negotiations such as the 27th and 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27 & COP28), the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and the Bonn Declaration on chemicals. It has also been incorporated into the work of UN treaty bodies, with the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) referencing the right.
National Adoption: On the national level, additional States have incorporated the right into their domestic legal systems, with Canada amending its environmental protection act to include the right, and Belize and Granada ratifying the Escazú Agreement, marking the first time those States have recognized the right. Now, 161 out of 193 UN Member States recognize the right to a healthy environment in domestic law.
Legal Precedents: The right to a healthy environment has also featured prominently in recent national court decisions — the highest courts in Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador have referred directly to the UNGA resolution in making powerful decisions that protect people’s right to a healthy environment from mining, biodiversity loss, and deforestation.
Even with this momentous progress, there is still work to be done for States to meet their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to a healthy environment.
At the UN, there is great potential to continue to realize the right in upcoming treaties, human rights documents, and declarations, such as:
- the 6th UN Environment Assembly Ministerial Declaration,
- the global plastics treaty,
- the treaty currently under negotiations with regards to business and human rights, and
- the upcoming Summit of the Future.
Human rights institutions must also fulfill their unique responsibility to uphold the right for all.
In addition, the right must be front and center in regional contexts such as the Escazú Agreement and the preparation of a regional framework on environmental rights under discussion in Southeast Asia under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Member States of the Council of Europe must also take decisive steps toward the effective legal protection of the right under the European Convention on Human Rights.
In 2024, together with partners around the world, CIEL will renew and strengthen our efforts to ensure the effective enjoyment of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.