US abandoned plans to block environmental rights proposal amid pressure

Fayette Power Project near La Grange, Texas, in winter 2019. The coal power plant has been accused of leaching toxic waste into the groundwater. (Unsplash/Sam LaRussa)

The Human Rights Council adopted a resolution reaffirming the right to a healthy environment on Tuesday after the United States went back on plans to break years of consensus on the proposal.

Internal discussions are said to have lasted well into the late hours of Monday night, according to a knowledgeable source. The United States, which had informed fellow diplomats over the weekend of its intentions to call for a vote on the environmental rights proposal, finally settled for making a statement stressing that it would “dissociate from consensus” on Tuesday morning.

As reported by Geneva Solutions ahead of the vote, environmental groups and diplomats alike had been stunned by the last-minute move. Informal negotiations last week seemed to signal that the text had the green light from all 47 council members to go through. The Human Rights Council, of which the US is a member, concluded its 52nd session on Tuesday.

The source suspects that pressure from all sides and the increasingly “high political risk” of being associated with Russia, which has traditionally spearheaded resistance to environment-related rights, convinced the US to change course.

Opposition to right to healthy environment

The resolution, adopted by consensus, 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 opposed the recognition of the right during negotiations in 2021 when it was not yet a council member, 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 would fill 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 ahead of the vote: “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.”

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 on Monday, 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.

Much to the relief of campaigners, the US didn’t call for a vote and the resolution was adopted by consensus. Taking the floor ahead of the adoption, US ambassador Michèle Taylor told the council: “The United States continues to support development of a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in a manner that is consistent with international law. However, we will disassociate from consensus today because we have significant concerns that this resolution, in purporting to characterize aspects of a right or obligations of states, gets ahead of the proper development of such a right.”

Duyck welcomed the adoption of the resolution on Twitter and thanked the states behind the proposal for having “resisted pressure through the final hours”.