GENEVA – The UN Human Rights Council recognized access to a clean and healthy environment as a fundamental right on Friday, officially adding its weight to the global fight against climate change and its devastating consequences.
The vote was passed with overwhelming support, despite criticism from some countries, particularly the United States and Great Britain.
The resolution, first discussed in the 1990s, is not legally binding, but it has the potential to shape global standards. Climate law attorneys say it could help them build arguments in environmental and human rights cases.
“This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths each year,” said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, who described the decision as a “historic breakthrough”.
The text proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland was adopted with 43 votes in favor and 4 abstentions from Russia, India, China and Japan and sparked rare applause in the Geneva forum.
Great Britain, which was one of the critics of the proposal in the last intense negotiations, surprisingly voted in favor at the last minute. Her UN Ambassador to Geneva, Rita French, said the UK voted “yes” because it shared supporters’ ambitions to tackle climate change, but added that states were not bound by the terms of the resolution.
The United States did not vote as it is not currently a member of the 47-member council.
Costa Rican Ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar said the decision will “send a strong message to communities around the world facing climate emergency that they are not alone”.
Critics had raised various objections, identified the council as an unsuitable forum and raised legal concerns.
Environmentalists said Britain’s previous critical stance undermined its pledges ahead of the global climate change conference to be held in Glasgow next month.
John Knox, a former UN special rapporteur, said ahead of the vote that those who criticized the resolution were “on the wrong side of history”.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 13.7 million deaths each year, or around 24.3% of the global total, are due to environmental risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure.
Another proposal, cited by the Marshall Islands, to set up a new Special Rapporteur on Climate Change was also approved by the Council on Friday.