Call to the UN to Formally Recognise the Human Right to a Healthy Environment

The Birdlife Partnership calls on the United Nations to amend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the first time in over 70 years to add a new human right: the right to a healthy natural environment.



1. The historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, in the wake of the devastation and turmoil of the Second World War. Widely recognised and respected as helping to guard against atrocities and injustice the world over, it has not been reopened since, but has one increasingly apparent failing: the lack of an environmental dimension. Over the course of its lifetime human development has become increasingly unsustainable, leading to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the setting up of its three daughter conventions to address the challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change and land degradation, and the much stronger focus on environmental sustainability in the Sustainable Development Goals compared to their precursor, the Millennium Development Goals.  But despite these efforts, environmental degradation continues largely unchecked, with consequent negative impacts on people, in particular the poorest and most vulnerable. 


2. Following a series of debates, reports and resolutions of different UN bodies during the last decade, international consensus has grown around the need for the UN to establish a new human right to a healthy environment. Helpfully, 80% of the UN's Member States (156 out of 193) already recognize the right to a healthy environment in constitutions, environmental laws or regional treaties, which has led to improved conservation on the ground. For example, the Constitutional Court in Costa Rica used the constitutional right to a healthy environment to stop logging in the habitat of scarlet macaws. However, as yet we do not have universal recognition and adequate implementation of this right. 


3. The issue has been given added momentum by the appointment and work of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment1, who has been working on the issue since 2012. Furthermore, since a UN General Assembly Resolution in 2018, work has started under the ‘Global Pact for the Environment’2, to develop a new overarching international legal framework for environmental protection. Whilst work on this new wider framework proceeds, there is growing agreement on the need for the UN to establish a new basic human right to a healthy environment. 


4. The issue is now exactly how to approve and make effective such a right. Different options have been proposed, with the next step being UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly resolutions recognizing that everyone has the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. As the world suffers the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and we review and reinvigorate global commitments to tackle the accelerating climate and biodiversity crises, this year presents a pivotal moment for such a General Assembly resolution in this, the 75th anniversary of the UN.  


5. The resolutions must include a call to include the new right to a healthy environment in the Charter of Human Rights, which forms part of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and currently consists of 30 articles. BirdLife favours pursuing this ‘Article 31’ option as the Universal Declaration represents the highest expression of human aspirations, and including a right to a healthy environment is exactly the signal of hope and commitment to a better future that the world needs. 


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