UN General Assembly passed a resolution on 28th July 2022, recognizing access to clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a universal human right. 161 member countries voted in favor of the resolution whereas 8 countries abstained from voting. The resolution is not legally binding on the countries but rather serves as a call for countries to unite and amplify actions to tackle the rising climate crisis.
The international legal framework did not explicitly talk about the right to clean environment. The same was also not mentioned in the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. In 1972, United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, for the first time, discussed the right to clean environment. Post this, several countries started integrating the right to clean environment into their constitutions, regional agreements, and national laws.
Last year in 2021, UN Human Rights Council actually recognized this right and called UNGA to do the same. This was achieved after years of advocacy by nations that are at the frontlines of climate change like Maldives, Fiji, and other allied states. UNGA’s resolution was based on a similar text adopted by the Human Rights Council. Earlier in 2010, UNGA had similarly accepted the right to water and sanitation.
The resolution is historic as it will change the nature of international human rights law. The resolution is passed at a time when the Earth is facing a triple planetary crisis, as per the UN, of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
What did India say?
Though India voted in favor of the resolution it raised some concerns over the text and its substance. Indian delegation highlighted that the resolution has no legal sanctity and makes no binding obligations to the member countries. The delegation is of the view that only legal treatises and agreements make parties commit and realize such goals.
The Indian delegation also said that there is a strict need to define terms such as ‘clean’, ‘healthy’, and ‘sustainable’ as they are loosely framed and are left open for subjective interpretation, thereby diluting the objectives of the resolution. The delegation went ahead and opined that the resolution fails to take into consideration the crucial principle of equity in international environmental law.
What is the principle of equity in international environmental law?
Equity, as a concept, is the bedrock of international environmental law. It was formally reflected in Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992. Article 3 of UNFCCC talks about the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) – based on equity. The CBDR principle acknowledges that all states have a shared obligation to address environmental degradation but denies equal responsibility of all states with regard to environmental protection.
The rationale behind this is the disparity in economic development between developed and developing countries. Industrialization started in developed countries much earlier than it did in developing countries. As a result, the developed countries caused more damage to the planet. Therefore, during the Earth Summit in 1992, states came to an agreement that developed countries contributed more to environmental degradation and should have greater responsibility for climate change mitigation than developing countries.
What can this resolution achieve?
Despite having no legally binding value, UN leaders and domain experts are hopeful that the resolution will provide more strength to ongoing advocacy on climate change. They are also of the view that the resolution will fuel more climate action like courts will deliver more pro-environment judgments, governments will introduce regional/national laws and environmental movements will get stronger. The resolution will change people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act, said UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd.
Rishabh is a lawyer and writer with six years of experience in policy communications. He works on issues of climate change, public health, and social justice. Rishabh is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at TA. He tweets at @Writer_Rishabh.
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