From all indications, there is a clear a compelling need for the United Nations to amend the 70-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include healthy natural environment as a right in the Charter of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) currently consists of 30 articles.
Expansion of the UDHR by creation of Article 31 as has been proposed by BirdLife International, a respected global environment conservation and protection organisation, “represents the highest expression of human aspirations.”
According to BirdLife, adding the right to a healthy environment is exactly the signal of hope and commitment to a better future that the world needs. The UDHR was adopted in 1948 in the wake of the devastation and turmoil of the Second World War. The UDHR has been widely recognised and respected and has helped to guard against atrocities and injustice all over the world. It has not been reopened since it was formulated and adopted by the United Nations. However, with the elapse of time, the world has been witnessing an increasingly apparent failing, which is the lack of an environmental dimension.
Human development has become increasingly unsustainable over the course of time. This led to the Earth Summit held Rio, Brazil in 1992 and the setting up of its three subsequent conventions to address the challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change and land degradation, and the much stronger focus on environmental sustainability under the Sustainable Development Goals compared to the Millennium Development Goals, which preceded the SDGs. But despite these efforts, environmental degradation has continued largely unchecked with consequent negative impacts on people, in particular the poorest and most vulnerable nations.
Following 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. Interestingly, 80 per cent of the UN’s member states (156 out of 193) already recognize the right to a healthy environment in their national constitutions, environmental laws or regional treaties. All these have 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, the world does not yet have a universal recognition and adequate implementation of this right.
The drive to achieve this has been given added momentum by the appointment and work of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, who has been working on the issue since 2012. Furthermore, following the passage of a UN General Assembly Resolution in 2018, work 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.
“The issue now is exactly how to approve and make such a right effective. Different options have been proposed with the next step being a 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 global commitments to tackle the accelerating climate and biodiversity crises are reviewed and reinvigorated, this year presents a pivotal moment for such a General Assembly resolution during the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.
• Pat Imo wrote from Lagos