Making progress on the international recognition of the human right to a healthy environment

Hub Director Elisa Morgera was invited to the eighth Glion Human Rights Dialogue on 16-17 May 2022 in Switzerland, to focus on the question: “the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment – what does it mean for States, for rights-holders and for nature?” The Glion Human Rights Dialogue is a high-level event bringing together around 65 human rights practitioners and thinkers (including governments, UN officials, independent experts, environmental human rights defenders, and civil society) in an informal space for open exchange and innovative thinking. This blog post reflects on the background to this initiative and its relevance for the research under the One Ocean Hub, and summarizes the contributions made by the Hub at the Dialogue.


The dialogue was an opportunity to reflect and identify ways forward on the international recognition of the human right to a healthy environment by the Human Rights Council in October 2021. In resolution 48/13 on ‘The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ (which was adopted by vote, with 43 in favour and 4 abstentions), the Council “recognize[d] the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights.” This recognition can be seen as the culmination of decades of interpretation of existing international human rights law in conjunction with international environmental law, as summarized in the 2018 UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, which guide research under the One Ocean Hub.

While governments continue to discuss the implications of the international recognition of this right for their action on human rights and the environment, the UN System has already expressed commitments to step up work in this area. Notably, the UN Secretary-General’s 2020  ‘Call to Action for Human Rights recognises that ‘the climate emergency threatens the rights and dignity not only of millions of people worldwide but also of people not yet born,’ and is advancing work on environmental human rights defenders and children’s rights to a healthy environment, among others. The One Ocean Hub is contributing to these efforts, by integrating evidence and insights on the role of the ocean and ocean defenders in the protection of the human right to a healthy environment.

As the Human Rights Council resolution also invited the UN General Assembly to consider the human right to a healthy environment, the Glion Human Rights Dialogue provided an opportunity to consider the value added of the General Assembly’s recognition of the human right to a healthy environment. The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule, and was organised by the Governments of Switzerland and Liechtenstein, supported by the Universal Rights Group, and in partnership with the Permanent Missions of the Republic of Fiji, Iceland, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Mexico, and Thailand.

What is the scope and content of the right to a healthy environment? 

Prof Morgera had been invited to contribute to a virtual preparatory policy dialogue in February 2022, and was invited to provide a keynote introduction, following remarks by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights, for a break-out group on the scope and content of the human right to a healthy environment. She highlighted the following points:

  • The scope of the human right to a healthy environment should be understood comprehensively, because of the indivisibility of human rights that are inter-dependent from an inter-connected environment (living and non-living organisms, be they human or otherwise. A comprehensive scope is necessary to tackle the inter-linked global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and toxics, and to understand the multiple contributions of the ocean to the water and carbon cycle, as well as to life and well-being on land.
  • The recent synthesis of evidence on the inter-dependencies of human health and biodiversity, for instance, provides clear evidence of the multiple levels of dependencies with a healthy environment, from the microbial level to the planetary one, including the implications of international wildlife trade and habitat loss for the global COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The content of the human right to a healthy environment is based on existing international obligations – in other words, the human right to a healthy environment is not a new right. The content is clear as described in decades of legal interpretation over time and by different international bodies, so the human right to a healthy environment provides a short & unequivocal label for these international normative developments.
  • The human right to a healthy environment is also relevant for business due diligence to demonstrate business responsibility to respect human rights. Guidance adopted under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the work of various UN Special Rapporteurs, have already translated relevant international obligations into clear standards of conduct for business, although more could be done to clarify the obligations of specific business sectors in relation to human rights and a healthy ocean.
  • The international legal meaning of the right to a healthy environment has been clarified by way of treaty interpretation. It brings together the existing “due diligence” obligations in international environmental law and the law with relevant international human rights standards, thereby clarifying the minimum content (procedurally and substantively) of State conduct. In other words, the meaning of the human right to a healthy environment is to systematically integrate existing international obligations human rights & environmental protection (including specific concerns related to climate change, biodiversity, toxics and the marine environment) in all public decisions – legislation, budgeting, policy-making and planning and environmental assessments. In this context, international human rights standards call for specific attention to certain individuals and groups, such as indigenous peoples, small-scale fishers, women, children, persons with disabilities, which means that these public decisions need be based not only on integrated evidence base, but also on disaggregated data on actual and potential human rights impacts.
  • The ‘value- added’ of the human right to a healthy environment, beyond that provided by existing universal rights is supporting more clearly acomprehensive approach to all human rights protection in as far as they depend on a healthy environment. This helps to identify opportunities for policy coherence, with a view to producing co-benefits & contributing to multiple SDG. This is a crucial value added for programmatic and capacity-building purposes: for supporting governments and civil society in taking better (more integrated and inclusive) decisions upfront on the conservation and sustainable use of the environment, and through that pooling together data, resources and expertise across public authorities (environment, health, etc) that are currently working in (relative, at best) isolation from one another. In addition, the perspective of children’s human rights to a healthy environment supports public authorities to implement inter-generational equity, by emphasizing the importance of longer-time frames for assessing potential impacts of different decisions on the environment.
  • The right to a healthy environment can be effectively claimed by rights-holders around the world by:
  • focusing on the creation of enabling conditions for the consideration of the inter-dependence of human rights and a healthy environment (including a healthy ocean) to be a regular practice, leading to widespread “everyday” accountability and shared leadership;
    • bridging communities of practice (at the international level and at the national level) into new alliances that support mutual learning and support across environmental management and human rights protection;
    • integrating natural and social sciences evidence base, to fully understanding environmental vulnerabilities and their impacts on the human rights of different individuals and groups, as well as developing full cognisance of knowledge gaps (such as the ecosystem services of the deep seas and their importance for human and planetary well-being – see here and here);

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment by the UN General Assembly would make a difference by: 1) supporting even more synergies and mutual learning across UN bodies that work on the environment, the ocean and human rights; 2) supporting engagement of governments with multiple UN-led global science processes (IPCC, IPBES, UN World Ocean Assessment, Global Chemical Outlook) with a view to assessing in an integrated manner the human rights implications of these assessments, taken together; and 3) provide annual stocktaking (supporting multi-stakeholder iterative learning) of progress made at different levels on the protection of the human right to a healthy environment.