The legal framework linking human rights to the environment

Aistė Zakarauskaitė

At first sight, human rights and the environment may not have much in common. However, all people depend on the environment in which they live. Without a safe and healthy environment, people may struggle to meet minimal living conditions. Therefore, this article links human rights to the environment and highlights a legal framework ensuring the implementation of human rights in an environmental context.

The link between human rights and the environment

All people feel the impacts of climate change every day – social, economical life and healthcare. Climate changes in the environment such as drought, hurricanes, and flood put at risk primary human rights which includes the right to health, education, housing etc. The United Nations (UN) stresses that a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation [1]. Therefore, the legal framework ensuring people have access to a safe and healthy environment is a must.

The human rights and the environment mandate

In 2012 the UN created the human rights and the environment mandate [1]. The purpose of this mandate is to identify challenges and obstacles to the global recognition and implementation of human rights, promote best practices of the use of human rights in environmental policymaking, conduct country visits and respond to human rights violations [2]. The current mandate holder is David R. Boyd who is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia [3]. According to UN, The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment is mandated, among other things, to promote and report on the realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and to disseminate his findings by, inter alia, continuing to give particular emphasis to practical solutions with regard to their implementation [2]. Therefore, this mandate contributes to developing a dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to enhance public awareness of the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe environment.

A clean and healthy environment is a universal human right

On 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic resolution declaring that access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a universal human right [4]. This resolution calls upon states, international organizations, and business enterprises to scale efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. According to the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, “The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples” [4]. It’s very important to help those in need because environmental changes primarily affect marginalized people and developing countries.

This resolution is co-sponsored by over 100 countries and notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements. The resolution covers three main interlinked environmental threats that humanity currently faces: climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss [4]. Therefore, it is a major step forward in ensuring the rights of all people and prioritizing climate issues.

It's important to mention that environmental actions and legal frameworks based on human rights obligations provide necessary guardrails for economic policies and business models. As well as it helps accelerate the implementation of environmental and human rights obligations and commitments. Hence, every adopted new document or change in the legal framework to ensure a safe environment helps to ensure human rights in the environmental context.

This article is a part of the project “Youth for Climate change!” which is implemented by Global Citizens‘ Academy (Lithuania) together with “Stebėk teises” (Lithuania), Peace Action (Estonia), Crossing Borders (Denmark). This publication has been produced with financial support from the Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania. The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the coordinators of this project and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

References:

[1] United Nations. (2022). About human rights and the environment. Read more:
[2] United Nations. (2022). Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. Read more:
[3] United Nations. (2022). Current mandate holder. Read more:
[4] UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right. (2022). Read more: