In a unanimous vote on Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly declared that “access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” is now a universal human right.
The vote, which has been working its way through the UN system for 50 years, elevates efforts on climate, biodiversity, and pollution to the highest level of global concern. Environmental protection is now equivalent to other universal human rights like the right to education, freedom of movement, and free speech and the prohibition of genocide, torture, and slavery. The final vote was 161-0, with eight abstentions.
“The well-being of people around the world and the survival of future generations depends on the health of our planet,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a Twitter post. He also called the action “historic” and “an important tool for accountability and climate justice.”
The implications of the vote are potentially transformative, enabling environmental action based on human rights obligations. It also normalizes the moral responsibility — especially for fossil fuel corporations and lagging nations — to protect the environment.
David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, said in an interview with UN News that the action “will change the very nature of international human rights law.”
“We need transformative changes to society, we need to quickly shift to renewable energy,” said Boyd. “We also need to shift to a circular economy, and we need to detoxify society, and the right to a healthy environment is one of the most powerful tools we have to hold governments accountable.”
Unlike UN Security Council resolutions, the UN has no independent authority to enforce resolutions by the General Assembly. Therefore, it will be up to individual nations to work to codify and create their own legal enforcements
The abstaining countries — Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Syria — authoritative governments that frequently work together against expanding human rights, argued that environmental protections should only be legally recognized rights when included in international treaties.
A unanimous vote also means that Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest exporter, the United States — the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, Brazil — the country with the biggest forest reserves, and India — soon-to-be the world’s most populous country — were all able to agree, which gives all the rest of us even more reason to demand they take bolder action.