The Human Rights Council urges States to realize the rights of the child through a healthy environment

Maria-Antonia Tigre and Victoria Lichet

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), an inter-governmental body made up of 47 States responsible for promoting and protecting human rights worldwide, held its 45th session from September 14th until October 7th, 2020, at the UN Office in Geneva. The UNHRC concluded its session after adopting 35 resolutions, including resolution A/HRC/45/L.48/Rev.1 on ‘the rights of the child: realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment.’ The resolution was introduced by Germany on behalf of the European Union and co-sponsored by Uruguay and the Group of Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC). Adopted without a vote, the resolution urges States to adopt effective measures to ensure children’s rights through a healthy environment and, in particular, the recognition of a right to a healthy environment in their national legislations.

As reported by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report ‘Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks,’ children, especially those under the age of five, are among the most affected by environmental impacts. Approximately 1.7 million children under the age of five die every year due to environmental impacts such as toxic air pollution and chemicals. These shocking numbers illustrate the vital necessity to effectively implement and protect the children’s right to a healthy environment to ensure the rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

This blog post discusses the interlinkages between the right to a healthy environment and children’s enjoyment of their human rights (§1). It provides a brief overview of the UNHRC’s discussion and the adoption of resolution A/HRC/45/L.48/Rev.1 (§2). Finally, it explores a possible future scenario for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment (§3).

§1. The interrelation between the right to a healthy environment and children’s enjoyment of their human rights

A healthy environment is essential for human health, especially for children. Environmental risks to health such as air, soil, and water pollution and climate change significantly affect the health of human beings. The WHO reported that more than 1 in 4 deaths of children under five were due to unhealthy environments. A report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment highlights that children are more vulnerable to air and water pollution because they have smaller respiratory airways that are more easily blocked by infections, and their immune systems are still developing. This report also suggests that children are more susceptible to climate change, especially extreme weather events, water scarcity, and food insecurity, because they need to consume more food and water per unit of body weight than adults. Besides, children are more likely to be harmed from exposure to hazardous chemicals, toxic substances, pesticides, and waste because they are exposed even before birth. Finally, the report emphasizes that environmental risks affect the full enjoyment of children’s rights, such as the rights to life, health, and development, an adequate standard of living, play, and recreation.

The CRC, adopted in 1989, is the international legal foundation for the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the child’s rights such as the right to life (article 6), the right to the highest attainable standard of health (article 24), or the right to education (article 28). Although it urges States Parties to take into consideration the risks of environmental pollution, the CRC does not mention the right to a healthy environment for children. The CRC requires parties to pursue full implementation of the rights of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health by taking measures to combat disease and malnutrition, including through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution (article 24, § c)). However, because environmental harm causes many deaths and diseases, it interferes with children’s rights to life, health, development, as well as their rights to food, housing, water sanitation, and an adequate standard of living.

§2. Preceding discussions and adoption of the ‘resolution on the rights of the child: realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment’

In January 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report on realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment. The report was submitted after the UNHRC requested an overview of the effects that environmental factors have on children, international legal obligations, business responsibilities, and recommendations for strengthening the protection, promotion, and fulfillment of children’s rights through a healthy environment. The report emphasizes the effects of environmental damage, climate change, and exposure to pollution and toxic wastes on children as underlined by the Special Rapporteur in his report mentioned above. Besides, the report recommended that States (1) urgently act to respect, protect and fulfill children’s rights related to environmental damage, pollution, and toxic substances; (2) integrate the human right to a healthy environment into national constitutions and legislation and recognize it at the global level; and (3) take ambitious mitigation measures to minimize the negative impacts of climate change on children, among other recommendations.

In July 2020, the UNHRC held a panel discussion entitled ‘A healthy environment as a child rights concern: setting the scene’, in which Walter Stevens, Head of the European Union Delegation to the United Nations Office at Geneva, asserted that a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is ‘the basis for human existence’ and especially ‘necessary for children to enjoy all their human rights.’ This panel discussion ‘set the scene’ for the UNHRC’s 45th session. Besides, Ricardo González Arenas, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office at Geneva, called attention on children’s vulnerability in the face of climate change and environmental damages, and encouraged the exchange of good practices, the strengthening of international cooperation and technical assistance to help States to fulfill their obligations and commitments regarding children’s rights.

The resolution, adopted on October 7th, 2020, reaffirms that States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights and address environmental harm. It recognizes that children, due to their developing metabolism, physiology, and needs, are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm, which impacts their health, well-being, and development from an early age. It additionally underlines the effects of environmental risk factors on the full enjoyment of the child’s rights. Further, it recalls that States should take measures to prevent and reduce exposure to pollution, hazardous substances and wastes, and environmental conditions that directly or indirectly affect children’s health. The UNHRC acknowledges the importance of ensuring that children of present and future generations enjoy an environment adequate to their health and well-being and that preventing environmental harm is the most effective way to protect them. By including the health and well-being of future generations, the UNHRC looks to the future to broaden and strengthen the obligation to ensure a healthy environment, embracing the principle of intergenerational equity. The resolution urges States to realize the rights of children through the recognition of the right to a healthy environment, as well as consider recognizing the right in national legislation to ensure the rights of both present and future generations:

“4. urges States to take the necessary measures to ensure the full enjoyment by children of all their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to protect them from the effects of environmental harm through effective regulation and enforcement mechanisms, including by ; (…)

(c)           Considering recognizing a right to a healthy environment in national legislation in order to promote justiciability, strengthen accountability and facilitate greater participation, improving environmental protection and performance and ensuring the rights of present and future generations;

The resolution also urges States to (1) adopt a child rights-based approach in environmental decision-making, (2) take precautionary action to combat threats of serious or irreversible damage to children from the effects of environmental harms, (3) strengthening cross-sectoral cooperation, regulatory agencies and ministries responsible for overseeing standards relevant to children’s rights, (4) collecting information on the impact of environmental harm on children, and (5) taking measures to eradicate forced labor.

Finally, the UNHRC urges States to ensure that children have access to justice and timely, effective, inclusive remedies when exposed to violations or abuse of their rights through the effects of environmental harm, which is crucial for the respect and protection of their rights.

§3. A potential scenario: the recognition of a universal right to a healthy environment

Although the right to a healthy environment is incorporated in more than one hundred national constitutions and referred to in the Aarhus Convention, it still does not appear in any legally binding treaty at the international level. Experts such as John Knox and David Boyd, the former and current Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights and the Environment, as well as civil society and indigenous peoples organizations call for the recognition of the universal right to a healthy environment.

For example, in April 2020, BirdLife, a global coalition supported by over 100 grassroots organizations, called on the United Nations to add the right to a healthy environment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On September 10th, 2020, a letter entitled “The Time is Now” called for recognizing the universal right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment during the next session of the UNHRCto be held in March 2021. Over 950 organizations from civil society, social, environmental, youth, gender equality, and human rights movements, trade unions, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, from more than 100 countries, signed the letter, sending it to all Permanent Representatives of the Members of the UNHRC. This letter reflects the widespread support for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment for all. Given the context of the current pandemic humanity is facing, it specifically mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic as demonstrating “the devastating effects that environmental degradation can have and how urgent it is that the right of all to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, already widely acknowledged at the national and regional levels, be also universally recognized by the pre-eminent human rights body of the United Nations.” While the precise consequences of the pandemic are still being investigated by the World Health Organization, there is increasing evidence that the virus spread as a direct consequence of environmental degradation.

Incidentally, during the 45th session, the Core Group on Human Rights and the Environment, composed of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland, reported on their consultations regarding the international recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment and their intent to continue to pave the way to its global recognition. Their informal consultation process is currently undertaking individual and small group consultations and will be followed by regional consultations. They asserted that “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation” and affirmed its crucial effect on present and future generations.

Likewise, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her statement on October 5th, 2020 at the high-level international conference on human rights and environmental protection called attention to the climate crisis and other environmental degradation as “contributing both directly and indirectly to human rights violations around the world.” She highlighted the law as one of the most effective tools to hold governments accountable, bolster human rights, protect human health and the Earth. She specifically called for global recognition and effective implementation of the human right to a healthy environment as a “fundamental prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other rights.”

These statements strongly calling for a universal right to a healthy environment appear to initiate a first phase within the United Nations system towards the recognition of a universal right to a healthy environment that could happen in March 2021. The universal right to a healthy environment could thus be a new legal norm to protect the environment as well as the health of human beings, especially in the face of current environmental challenges.

Conclusion

Resolution A/HRC/45/L.48/Rev.1 is a landmark resolution as it calls all States to recognize the right to a healthy environment in their national legislation to ensure, in particular, children’s rights. In addition, the resolution highlights the necessity to take additional measures to protect children from environmental harm. It is thus a decisive success for the rights of children, which potentially paves the way towards the adoption of a universal right to a healthy environment. As we face more environmental challenges, international cooperation is crucial in the recognition of the right to a healthy environment for all. The growing support for such recognition truly reflects the necessity to adopt and implement such right for the health, well-being, and dignity of all.

The authors express their thanks to Sébastien Duyck and Otto Spijkers for their valuable insights.