UN Declares the Right to a Healthy Environment – by the Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski

On July 28, 2022, the General Assembly of the United Nations took a bold step in the ongoing process of caring for the creation we have inherited. By an overwhelming vote of 161 – 0, with eight member nations abstaining, the General Assembly approved a resolution which establishes a sustainable and healthy environment as a basic, universal right of all people. Over one hundred nations co-sponsored this resolution. The large co-sponsorship (unfortunately, the United States was not a co-sponsor) testifies to the strong support for this resolution among the UN delegates and their national governments. 

Because a livable human context is absolutely central to the continuing viability of creational life on our planet the United Nations’ vote placed this right at the core of our understanding of the longstanding human rights tradition, which includes social/political values such as freedom. This newly affirmed right is seen as standing at the very heart of that tradition. Its recognition and enhancement are not marginal but integral to the maintenance of the entirety of humanity and the universe with which we are intertwined. 

This resolution has its origins in a resolution from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council that was approved in October 2021. The decision of the General Assembly expands the scope of the resolution and roots it in humanity’s self-perception, in its understanding of human existence as a constituent part of the universe’s “web of creation.” This resolution links the affirmed basic right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to various declarations previously passed by UN Commissions and Agencies. 

The new resolution contains four foundational affirmations. They are: (1) recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right; (2) a notation that the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is related to other rights and existing international law; (3) an affirmation that the promotion of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment requires the full implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements under the principles of international environmental law; and (4) reminds nation-states, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant bodies of their responsibility to adopt policies to enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity building and continue to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all. 

Passage of the resolution was enabled by the strong endorsement of religious bodies and secular-based non-governmental organizations accredited to the United Nations. These groups lobbied their respective governments to sign on to the passage of this resolution, attaining over the one hundred co-sponsors mentioned previously. This was certainly a high watermark for such UN resolutions. This reveals the degree to which an ever-increasing number of national governments have come to understand how profoundly environmental degradation impacts their national existence, especially those which exist near coastal waters. 

One organization that was significantly involved in the approval of this resolution on both the national and international levels was the Chicago-based Parliament of the World’s Religion. Its international membership stepped up to pressure the respective governments to support and even co-sponsor the resolution. The overwhelming favorable vote and the large number of co-sponsors testifies to the success of this Parliament’s effort in concert with other religious and secular non-governmental organizations.

This resolution has been applauded by both human rights experts and advocates for climate responsibility and sustainability as a monumental step forward in addressing the indivisibility of human rights and the well-being of humans and nature. This fusing of human rights and climate responsibility has moved the care for creation from a rather marginal concern of the human community to a central aspect of planetary existence in our time. 

While a General Assembly resolution is not legally binding, it has immense political importance as a statement of principle and values. It also sets up a global framework for a deepening crisis that respects no national borders. The climate crisis which carries suicidal implications if not addressed quickly requires global collaboration. This new resolution serves an important barometer for measuring responsibility as well as generating the political will required to transform it into an active force for change. It helps to implant in human consciousness a new “responsibility” template, without which our response will prove inadequate. Religious and secular NGOs must respond to the challenge it provides in our time. 


Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

John Pawlikowski

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