UN Special Rapporteur Calls for Global Recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment

UN Special Rapporteur Calls for Global Recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment

By Makenna Osborn, Staff Contributor 

On Monday March 5, 2018, John H. Knox, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment,[1] spoke before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland and called on the body to formally recognize the human right to a healthy environment.[2] In his remarks, Knox pointed out that although many regional agreements and state constitutions already recognize the right to a healthy environment, it has not been formally adopted in an international agreement.[3] As Sebastien Duyk, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, emphasized when commenting on the Special Rapporteur’s presentation, “global recognition of this right and the provision of effective remedies are now a matter of utmost urgency for frontline communities exposed to climate-induced impacts, environmental defenders, and vulnerable groups exposed to toxic and hazardous substances.”[4] Knox urged the Human Rights Council to “consider supporting the recognition of [the right to a healthy environment] in a global instrument” and introduced a new report, Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment,[5] which could lay the groundwork for such an instrument.[6]

The sixteen framework principles introduced by Knox reflect the recognition that human rights and environmental protection are interdependent.[7] As Knox highlighted in his remarks, “A healthy environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of many human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and development. At the same time, the exercise of other freedoms, including the rights to information, participation and remedy, is vital to the protection of the environment.”[8] The principles are intended to apply existing State obligations under human rights law to the environmental context, rather than create new obligations.[9] They draw from regional and international treaties and binding tribunal decisions as well as non-binding, interpretive statements from human rights bodies.[10]

The framework principles issued by the Special Rapporteur are:

  1. States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.
  2. States should respect, protect and fulfill human rights in order to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
  3. States should prohibit discrimination and ensure equal and effective protection against discrimination in relation to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
  4. States should provide a safe and enabling environment in which individuals, groups and organs of society that work on human rights or environmental issues can operate free from threats, harassment, intimidation and violence.
  5. States should respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in relation to environmental matters.
  6. States should provide for education and public awareness on environmental matters.
  7. States should provide public access to environmental information by collecting and disseminating information and by providing affordable, effective and timely access to information to any person upon request.
  8. To avoid undertaking or authorizing actions with environmental impacts that interfere with the full enjoyment of human rights, States should require the prior assessment of the possible environmental impacts of proposed projects and policies, including their potential effects on the enjoyment of human rights.
  9. States should provide for and facilitate public participation in decision-making related to the environment and take the views of the public into account in the decision-making process.
  10. States should provide for access to effective remedies for violations of human rights and domestic laws relating to the environment.
  11. States should establish and maintain substantive environmental standards that are non-discriminatory, non-retrogressive and otherwise respect, protect and fulfill human rights.
  12. States should ensure the effective enforcement of their environmental standards against public and private actors.
  13. States should cooperate with each other to establish, maintain and enforce effective international legal frameworks in order to prevent, reduce and remedy transboundary and global environmental harm that interferes with the full enjoyment of human rights.
  14. States should take additional measures to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable to, or at particular risk from environmental harm, taking into account their needs, risks and capacities.
  15. States should ensure that they comply with their obligations to indigenous peoples and members of traditional communities, including by:
    1. Recognizing and protecting their rights to the lands, territories and resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied or used;
    2. Consulting with them and obtaining their free, prior and informed consent before relocating them or taking or approving any other measures that may affect their lands, territories or resources;
    3. Respecting and protecting their traditional knowledge and practices in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of their lands, territories and resources;
    4. Ensuring that they fairly and equitably share the benefits from activities relating to their lands, territories or resources.
  16. States should respect, protect and fulfill human rights in the actions they take to address environmental challenges and pursue sustainable development.[11]

These principles provide States with a digestible summary of their human rights obligations related to environmental law and guidance on how they can implement those obligations. In the report issued by the Special Rapporteur, each principle has a corresponding commentary which elaborates on the legal basis for the obligation, clarifies its meaning, and offers further guidance on achieving effective implementation.[12] The framework principles should also serve as a valuable resource for the increasing number of individuals and groups seeking protection of the environment under the human rights law framework. Environmental rights advocates will be waiting to see if the Human Rights Council heeds the Special Rapporteur’s advice and uses the framework principles as a catalyst for movement toward a global agreement recognizing the right to a healthy environment.


[1] Recognizing the need for more dedicated analysis of the relationship between human rights and the environment, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a mandate for an Independent Expert on the matter in 2012. H.R.C. Res. 19/10, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/RES/19/10 (Mar. 22, 2012), https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/G12/131/59/PDF/G1213159.pdf?OpenElement. In 2015, the Council extended the mandate and changed the position from Independent Expert to Special Rapporteur. H.R.C. Res 28/11, U.N. Doc. A HRC/RES/28/11 (Mar. 26, 2015), https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/071/78/PDF/G1507178.pdf?OpenElement.

[2] UN Expert Calls for Global Recognition of the Right to Safe and Healthy Environment, Off. of the High Comm’r for Hum. Rts. [OHCHR] (Mar. 5, 2018), http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22755&LangID=E.

[3] Id.

[4] States Must Recognize Human Right to a Healthy Environment, Says UN Expert, Ctr. for Int’l Envtl. Law [CIEL] (Mar. 6, 2018), http://www.ciel.org/news/states-must-recognize-human-right-healthy-environment-says-un-expert/.

[5] John H. Knox (Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment), Rep. on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Relating to the Enjoyment of a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/37/59 (Jan. 24, 2018), https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G18/017/42/PDF/G1801742.pdf?OpenElement; U.N. Human Rights Special Procedures et. al., Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment (2018) [hereinafter Framework Principles], http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/FrameworkPrinciplesUserFriendlyVersion.pdf.

[6] Off. of the High Comm’r for Hum. Rts., supra note 2.

[7] See Framework Principles, supra note 5, at ¶ 1 (“Human rights are part of nature, and our human rights are intertwined with the environment in which we live. Environmental harm interferes with the enjoyment of human rights, and the exercise of human rights helps to protect the environment and to promote sustainable development.”).

[8] Off. of the High Comm’r for Hum. Rts., supra note 2.

[9] See Knox, supra note 5, at ¶ 8.

[10] See id.

[11] Knox, supra note 5, Annex; Framework Principles, supra note 5.

[12] See Knox, supra note 5, Annex; Framework Principles, supra note 5.