Evolutions of the Right to a Healthy Environment Part 2: Political Dimensions of International Environmental Governance

by Anna Guzman and Stephanie Yu

*Welcome to Part 2! This is the second post of our two-part series on the differences between the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 48/13 and UN General Assembly Resolution A/76/L.75 affirming the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. (See the first post here.)

In this second post, we will be discussing changes made to the framing of member states’ respective political authority and the relationship between developing and developed nations. While the UNGA resolution introduces explicit language discussing the necessity for a focus on least developed countries (LDCs), it also omits language regarding recommendations for sharing knowledge and respecting state sovereignty. As such, the changes discussed below will analyze the implications in the context of the existing political power structures that shape the international environmental policy and human rights space. 

Comparing the Resolutions: What’s Been Added?

Language Added in the Final GA Resolution in Regards to Least Developed Countries

The two resolutions significantly differ in their treatment of the relationship between developing and developed countries in the context of sustainable development. In the UNGA Resolution, language regarding international cooperating was added, stating:

“international cooperation has an essential role in assisting developing countries, including highly indebted poor countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing States, as well as the specific challenges faced by middle-income countries, in strengthening their human, institutional and technological capacity.”

Though this addition signals a willingness on behalf of developed countries to assist in capacity building within developing countries, States expressed regret that stronger language had not been employed. In addition, several low- and middle-income states objected that the final draft did not explicitly delegate comparative responsibilities relative to the respective capabilities of developing and developed countries, especially considering the disproportionate effects developed countries have had on the acceleration of climate change.

For example, the representative of Nicaragua noted that “developing countries are the least responsible for human-induced climate change.” She expressed her delegation’s disappointment that the text did not explicitly reference the historical responsibilities shared by developed countries to position themselves at the forefront of movements reversing current consumption patterns. While the text does refer to the “specific challenges faced by middle-income countries” to strengthen “human, institutional, and technological capacity,” the representative of Nicaragua noted that the section failed to articulate an obligation for developed countries to lead this charge and “fulfill their commitments to official development assistance, technology transfer and capacity-building.” Thus, though this addition to the text is a positive development because it acknowledges the unique needs of developing countries, the text could have explicitly assigned responsibility for mitigation by recognizing the ways in which developed countries disproportionately contributed to climate change.

Such recognition would reflect the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDRs). Formalized at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, the CBDR framework notes that “the Parties should protect the climate system…on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” Nicaragua’s concern regarding the omission of CBDRs was echoed by several member states—Syria, Pakistan, and China, to name a few.

The departure from the principle of CBDR in the UNGA Resolution suggests continued contention within international legal and political frameworks regarding the relationship between developing and developed nations. Worryingly, this departure does nothing to dissuade the problematic idea that LDCs have played a proportional role in the consumption and production practices that have led to climate change and thus should be held responsible, equal to developed countries, for climate justice. Therefore, while some progress can be seen between the HRC and UNGA versions of the text, it does little to address the issue of climate injustice and the relationship between developing and developed countries.

Comparing the Resolutions: What’s Been Omitted?

Language Removed Regarding Best Sustainability Practices and International Cooperation

While the HRC resolution provides that states fulfill their human rights obligations by “exchanging knowledge and ideas, building synergies between the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment, bearing in mind an integrated and multisectoral approach and considering that efforts to protect the environment must fully respect other human rights obligations,” the UNGA substantially simplifies the recommendations for best practices. It provides, instead, that states should “share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.” 

Sharing best practices is undoubtedly necessary to ensure that countries are well-informed about effective and efficient environmental protection strategies. However, the omission of recommendations to exchange knowledge and ideas prevents states from accessing knowledge for analyzing and understanding the world beyond productive outcomes. Knowledge and ideas may not only encompass the research and development necessary to create climate adaptation technology and products, but also important ways of engaging with the environment and environmental justice concepts. Moreover, without shared access to knowledge and ideas, the potential to replicate good practices may also be minimized, preventing countries from making informed, collective decisions with globally accessible information. 

Especially considering that most of the research and development for green technology is done in the global North, coupled with intellectual property and trade barriers, the inaccessibility of critical climate knowledge and sustainability practices has already been and will continue to be detrimental to the global South. Valuable knowledge and successful practices from climate litigation in the global South will be, likewise, limited to the global South.  

A multisectoral approach—one that combines public and private actors—will also be necessary to address climate change and environmental protection. This multi-sector approach was noted on the Assembly floor by the representative of Brazil, who voiced regret as to the evolution of the language in the final draft resolution as well as the absence of any “provision of financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer.” He stressed that those elements are necessary for developing countries to implement in good faith the right recognized in the draft resolution. As such, the omission of these strategies fails to recognize the necessity of a globally coordinated response. 

Language Removed Referencing State Sovereignty

The original resolution passed by the HRC in October explicitly referenced the principle of state sovereignty:

“Reaffirming the importance of international cooperation, on the basis of mutual respect, in full compliance with the principles and purposes of the Charter, with full respect for the sovereignty of States while taking into account national priorities.”

This language was entirely omitted from the UNGA version of the resolution, a change that deeply concerned many of the member states.

In particular, the representative of Trinidad and Tobago stated that her delegation had proposed a reference “to sovereignty, as in preambular paragraph 8 of a certain Human Rights Council resolution,” but that this proposal had not been accepted. The representative expressed her delegation’s disappointment that there was no official comment within the resolution on the importance of respecting state sovereignty and reinforcing international cooperation born out of a foundation of “mutual respect.” The representative for India also noted that there was “strong support by several Member States” for language that clearly reaffirmed the principle of state sovereignty. 

This omission reveals a larger tension within international climate discourse. By framing suggestions for international climate action through a lens of mutual respect and international cooperation, the sovereignty-focused language makes clear that this human right does not license uninvited interference by some states into the activities of others. This is an issue of particular concern to developing states, many of whom have long experience of colonial and neocolonial incursions into their territories by developed states. The inclusion of language recognizing state sovereignty (following the HRC Resolution) would have made clear the UNGA’s wishes to respect the jurisdictional power and legal sovereignty of each country, thereby reaffirming principles of international cooperation through non-interference and anti-colonialism.

The UNGA Resolution is different from the HRC Resolution in a number of substantial ways. The changes made to language regarding member state sovereignty and political authority have a number of significant possible implications for states’ obligations in regard to climate change and environmental protection more broadly. Although the UNGA explicitly affirmed the necessity of assisting least developed and middle-income countries in climate response, the lack of recognition for common but differentiated responsibilities fails to emphasize that developed countries bear a disproportionate responsibility for climate change. To that end, the omission of the HRC’s recommendation to share knowledge and resources only perpetuates the existing disadvantages faced by developing countries, preventing them from opportunities to increase their capacity. In addition, the omission of an explicit reference to state sovereignty fails to reaffirm principles of non-interference and autonomy, a problematic message that disproportionately jeopardizes the political agency of LDCs. 

International environmental governance will always be shaped by political motivations and structural inequities. It is imperative to recognize that while this landmark resolution holds many positive implications for international environmental protection, environmental justice, and international equity are critical to the realization of the right to a healthy environment.