The Human Right to a Healthy Environment: AUWCL Professor Contributes to Compilation of Best Practices at the United Nations

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AUWCL Professor David Hunter’s commitment to the progressive development of international environmental law was further highlighted in his support of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, Mr. David R. Boyd. The Special Rapporteur had made a call for submissions from civil society to a global online “researchathon” on best practices followed by states in recognizing the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and in implementing the procedural and substantive elements of the right. With the support of his students at the Environmental Law Program, Professor David Hunter contributed to this “researchathon” with relevant information. The goal is to showcase the remarkably diverse array of actions that states can and do engage in to protect this human right.

The good practices that the Special Rapporteur compiled have been published recently in his report dated 30 December 2019 (A/HRC/43/53). The Rapporteur highlights good practices in the recognition and implementation of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. For the purpose of his report, the term “good practice” is defined broadly to include laws, policies, jurisprudence, strategies, programs, projects and other measures that contribute to reducing adverse impacts on the environment, improving environmental quality and fulfilling human rights. The good practices address both the procedural and substantive elements of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The procedural elements are access to information, public participation, and access to justice and effective remedies. The substantive elements include clean air, a safe climate, access to safe water and adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.

The Special Rapporteur concluded that the human right to a healthy environment is now recognized in law by more than 80% of member states of the United Nations (156 out of 193 states). Many different actions have the potential of providing for cleaner air, improved access to safe water and adequate sanitation, and sustainably produced food, healthy environments and a safe climate. This even applies in difficult circumstances, such as in states or communities affected by poverty, conflict or natural disasters. The most important beneficiaries of the good practices highlighted in the report are the individuals and communities who are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of environmental harm and who lack access to basic environmental services.

At the same time, the Special Rapporteur also warned “that humanity faces a daunting and unprecedented global environmental crisis of its own making. Despite the many good practices, they are not nearly enough. There is much, much more work to be done to transform today’s unjust and unsustainable society into an ecological civilization where human rights are universally respected, protected and fulfilled” (para. 116 of the Report).