Reflecting on the role of the UN in supporting the human right to a healthy environment  

What is needed to bridge the gap between human rights practices and the human right to a healthy environment? The UN Development Programme (UNDP) invited Hub Director Elisa Morgera to contribute to answering this question during the UNDP Annual Meeting on Rule of Law and Human Rights (20-22 June 2023).  

Continuing Hub engagement with the UN System on this topic, Morgera was first asked to reflect on how human rights and biodiversity are connected and how can this help us improve our understanding on advancing the right to a healthy environment. She underscored that the full enjoyment of human rights (life, health, food, water, culture) depends on biodiversity and ecosystem services from the microbial level to planetary health (including the role of marine biodiversity in the protection of oxygen, global carbon cycle and global water cycles, and climate regulation), with particular impacts on Indigenous Peoples, small-scale fishers, women and children. But these connections remain less understood than the human rights impacts of pollution and climate change, even if these two global environmental challenges are inter-twined with biodiversity loss.  

Morgera then explained that the implication of the recognition in science and in international law about the inter-dependence of biodiversity and human rights is that no unjustified, foreseeable infringements of human rights should arise from decisions on biodiversity. This concerns both the decisions of public authorities that may infringe biodiversity-dependent human rights and States’ obligations to prevent business entities from violating these rights in the context of extractives, the creation of protected areas, climate change response measures, or renewables development. She emphasised that in this connection more attention needs to be placed on the ocean-climate nexus and the blue economy (marine renewables, offshore oil and gas; deep-seabed mining; fisheries and ocean plastic).  

In terms of recommendations to UNDP and other organisations in the UN System, Morgera recommended that they build capacity to apply human rights to clarify the minimum conduct required from States in implementing international environmental law, to ensure protection of biodiversity and human rights, and put in place procedural guarantees (effective national laws and access to remedies). In particular, she recommended developing training programmes (for judges, national human rights institutions, environmental assessment experts) on human rights as a proactive tool for system thinking and capacity-building to cooperate across different sectors to apply both the ecosystem approach and the human rights-based approach. 

The session included among the speakers Pichamon Yeophantong, Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, to which the Hub recently made a submission on the need to protect human rights in the context of just transition through blue economies.  

The UNDP Annual Meeting serves as a virtual forum to enable exchange on the current development context in relation to the rule of law, human rights, justice and security. One session was devoted to the human right to a healthy environment to identify ways to work across human rights and environmental disciplines, to protect both the environment and the people who depend on it. The video-recording of the event can be found on UNDP YouTube channel

Photo: Casey Pratt

Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on land