Exclusive: US to take stance against environment rights proposal at Human Rights Council

A Norfolk and Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on 3 February 2023, releasing toxic chemicals into the water, air and soil. US authorities are conducting health impact assessments. (Keystone/AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The United States plans to block approval by consensus of a draft resolution reaffirming the human right to a healthy environment at the UN body in last-minute move.

The US is expected to call for a vote when the text is considered by the Human Rights Council around 9am on Tuesday, inviting fellow countries to abstain or vote against the environmental rights proposal, sources told Geneva Solutions. Two diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed the information to Geneva Solutions.

They both said they were bewildered by the US’s last-minute decision, especially after informal negotiations last week seemed to signal that the text would not face any opposition when it was its turn for consideration.

The US currently sits on the 47-member council, which is currently discussing several proposals before it closes its 52nd session on Tuesday. The sources said that the US would likely abstain – a way of signalling its opposition, considered less diplomatically aggressive than voting against.

The proposal calls on states to protect human rights in relation to environmental challenges and conserve and restore ecosystems and biodiversity. Brought forward every two years by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Morocco, the Maldives and Slovenia, it has always passed by consensus.

But this year, the text goes a step further, mentioning the landmark decision by the Human Rights Council in October 2021 to recognise the universal right to a healthy environment. The UN General Assembly followed suit in New York in July 2022.

The US had opposed the recognition of the right during negotiations in 2021 when it was not yet a member of the council, arguing a lack of clear legal definition. Despite this, it voted in favour of the initiative when it was presented in New York last year. It also voted in favour last week of a resolution requesting the UN Court of Justice to rule on states’ obligations to tackle climate change.

Sébastien Duyck, human rights and climate campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), echoed diplomats and said it was “puzzling” why the US would proactively seek to undermine the proposal at the Human Rights Council.

“Apart from the US, no other state has expressed the desire to call for a vote,” he said.

Duyck stressed that the text had been watered-down throughout negotiations and “while it may represent a useful step forward, was not in itself groundbreaking”, making it all the more difficult to understand the US’s reasoning. Around 20 amendments had been submitted by countries, including India, the UK, the US and Russia. They were all gradually withdrawn, except for Russia.

For Duyck, it was concerning that the US was filling a gap left by Russia after it was kicked out of the council last year following its invasion of Ukraine. Up until now, Moscow had led efforts to block discussions around environment-related rights at the Geneva-based body. Russia called for a vote when the proposal for the right to a healthy environment was proposed in 2021, but was only backed by China and Japan.

Sandra Epal-Ratjen, international advocacy director and deputy executive director of the NGO Franciscans International, said in a statement: “Following closely this session of the Council, I am totally disheartened to see how the United States is aligning with Russia in trying to oppose progress on environmental justice and more specifically, the right to a healthy environment as a human right. “

One of the diplomatic sources said they were confident that the resolution would still overwhelmingly pass despite a few abstentions but expressed frustration at the US’s move.

Yves Lador, Geneva representative from environmental rights group Earthjustice, said that “in the face of accelerating global climate change, ecosystem collapse, and pervasive environmental injustice, any U-turn now by the US would be of great concern.”

Human Rights Watch also joined the choir of concerned voices: “This would not only put the US at odds with the overwhelming majority of countries from all regions, but also with environmental human rights defenders worldwide who rely on the right to defend their livelihoods, health, and culture against environmental destruction,” said Lucy McKernan, deputy director for Geneva advocacy.

Contacted by Geneva Solutions, the US mission to the UN in Geneva said it was unable to comment ahead of consideration of the resolution on Tuesday at the Council.