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Major win for environmental rights at UN Human Rights Council

Fridays for Future global climate action day in Prague, Czech Republic, 24 September 2021, as activists call for socially fair and consistent measures to limit global warming. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Martin Divisek)

UN agrees to appoint climate expert and recognises the right to a healthy environment in major victory for rights groups.

The Human Rights Council passed two landmark resolutions on Friday to appoint a UN expert on climate change and acknowledge people’s right to live in a healthy environment.

Both initiatives follow years of civil society groups campaigning for stronger action on environmental rights from the Geneva-based UN human rights body, which has been meeting throughout the month online and in person.

The decline of the planet’s health from human activities, such as the extraction of minerals, intensive farming, as well as CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, is having dire consequences for humans, and civil society groups and a number of countries argue that it is the council’s role to shed light on states contributing to the situation.

Climate change gets its own expert

Officially announced three weeks ago, the proposal to create a mandate for a special rapporteur to oversee how rising temperatures affect people’s human rights faced a fair amount of pushback from some powerful countries.

Certain countries have been wary of having an expert appointed since their climate actions – or lack thereof – would likely be brought into question through the expert’s reporting. Others have made the case that it could add pressure on wealthy states to deliver on funding promises to help poorer countries address climate challenges.

Initially, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Philippines were heading efforts at the council for the initiative but had so far failed to deliver due to reservations from some countries on having yet another UN expert scrutinise their human rights records.

Frustrated with the stalling, states favourable to the proposal, led by the Marshall Islands and supported by the European Union, Fiji, Bahamas, Panama, Paraguay and Sudan, took over the initiative. The move was perceived by the original Asian trio as a “hijack”, according to a diplomatic source close to the issue.

Read also: Countries band together to appoint UN climate expert

“We regret the lack of coordination and inclusive and transparent process that would have allowed us to proceed with unity and approach and purpose on this matter,” the Philippines delegate told state members, while noting that the three countries would nevertheless back the proposal.

Healthy environment becomes a universal right

Brought forward by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Morocco and Slovenia, the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment proved to be even more controversial.

Several countries, including the US and the UK, have expressed reservations about recognising a new right out of “legal concerns”, Sébastien Duyck from the Center on International Environmental Law, told reporters on Tuesday.

The lack of support had sparked criticism against two countries that have been actively trying to position themselves as champions of nature protection in the last year as US President Joe Biden seeks to differentiate himself from his predecessor Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tries to set things up for a memorable climate summit in Glasgow.

“Many are asking how the president of COP26, the country that is telling the world to ‘grow up’ and urgently deal with the destruction of the natural environment, is standing in the way of such a critical development,” UK director of Human Rights Watch, Yasmine Ahmed, wrote on Wednesday.

Despite voting in favour of the resolution, the UK delegation warned that “recognising rights without due consideration and a common understanding at an international level of what they comprise creates ambiguity. Individuals cannot know what they can legitimately claim from the state, and the state has no clear understanding of the protection it is obliged to afford to the individual.”

While the recognition of the right will not force countries to make changes in national legislation, advocates argue that it could help when bringing environmental cases to courts as it has done in the dozens of countries and regions where it is embedded in their legal frameworks.

Read also: UN closer to recognising the right to a healthy environment

“We know from experience that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment brings so many benefits in the mid and long term. It's shocking that this marginal legal argument is preventing them from supporting this initiative going forward,” Duyck noted.

Avid opposition from Russia

Despite reservation from certain countries, the most vocal opposition came from Russia, which has been an avid opponent of having the council get involved with climate change and environmental issues, arguing that it is a matter for other UN bodies such as the UN Framework for the Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which oversees the Paris agreement.

On the right to a healthy environment, it tabled no less than ten amendments to the draft proposal in an effort to water down the text and essentially scrap the recognition of the right. All amendments were largely rejected.

“How can we recognise a right that from the point of view of international law has not been defined and which has no legal grounds?” the Russian representative told the council. A Uruguayan representative responded that the text was “balanced”.

Other countries, including Japan and China echoed Russia's remarks, describing the right to a healthy environment as an “ambiguous concept” and joined the state in abstaining from the vote.

Approved by 43 votes in favour and three abstentions, the resolution was welcomed with a burst of applause from delegates, in a rare expression of excitement at the council’s meeting grounds. The last time the council recognised a right was in 2010 with regards to the right to water and sanitation.

On the resolution for a climate expert, Russia was the only country to vote against it as China, India, Japan and Eritrea contented themselves with abstaining.