The Right to A Healthy Environment: A Call Beyond Solidarity?

Guest post by Susan Ann Samuel, a PhD Student at the University of Leeds, expanding upon the presentation she gave at BISA (British International Studies Association) 2023.

At BISA, I chaired an Environment Working Group panel where I presented my paper ‘Unpacking the Right to A Healthy Environment in a Political-legal Discourse’, looking into how the Right to a Healthy Environment bolsters climate justice and vice versa through international solidarity. As 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, this ‘new’ human right holds great relevance amidst the current planetary crisis, urging us to heighten our ambitions for climate action and cultivate a more sustainable world. In this blog, I try to reason why international solidarity is important and whether we need to heed a call beyond it.

In the rich discussion that followed the panel, a particular question from the audience sparked deep insight—”International solidarity or obligation?” This question referenced feminist voices at COP27, quoting Gina Cortés Valderrama:

“…we are not asking governments for their solidarity. We are asking for their responsibility for their historical and polluting actions…”

I believe we need both! Solidarity and responsibility are indispensable; however, solidarity must precede responsibility or obligation. My response asked the audience to consider the very act of gathering in that room for the panel discussion. Intending to underscore the importance of shared purpose and cooperation, I asked: “Haven’t we all first decided to be in this room, exhibiting some sort of solidarity, before this panel even took place?”

Getting Everyone to the Room: Solidarity

As abstract as it may seem, by getting everyone to the room, I mean facilitating inclusion and participation. The praxis of climate justice and the rise of international solidarity for climate action can be studied through a political-legal discourse of Right to a Healthy Environment; where the successful implementation of the ‘new’ right, will require two critical elements – solidarity and agency.

Solidarity rights predominately originate as a result of post-World War II decolonization initiatives and were subsequently shaped by a 1978 UNESCO report that proposed the establishment of a fresh global economic system aimed at fostering development in former colonies within a framework of human rights. However, five years earlier, in 1972, the Stockholm Declaration stressed the need for “a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment”.

When the Call to Action 2020 merged the urgency of climate crisis and the need to tackle it for the present and future generations, it also tied up the relevance of achieving the same by urging States to protect rights by promoting a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Moreover, one of Secretary General’s key proposals in Our Common Agenda 2021 was the recognition of the universal right to a healthy environment—the same that at core prioritizes global/international solidarity, multilateralism, and international cooperation.  

According to UN Special Rapporteur David Boyd, the right to a healthy environment is included in regional human rights treaties and environmental treaties binding more than 120 States. Moreover, constitutional protection and inclusion in environmental legislations have been granted by over 100 States. In total, 155 States have established legal recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment

The recognition of the right by the Human Rights Council in its 48th Session in 2021 was strategic because ‘it is a concrete step towards climate justice’. It was recorded that the resolution was passed with 43 votes in favour, 0 votes against, and 4 abstentions. Moreover, at the same time, through Resolution 48/14, the HRC established a Special Rapporteur mandate dedicated to strengthening the focus of human rights and climate change. The recognition of the right (A/RES/76/300) by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in its 76th Session in 2022 records 161 nations in favour of the Resolution, with 0 against and 8 abstentions.

India and Japan—though abstaining from voting in HRC, voted in favour of the UNGA resolution. With the recognition of the right in the UNGA, it became the first universal human rights to be fully recognized by the UN since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Three observations can be drawn from the voting patterns of 48th Session of HRC and 76th Session of UNGA—firstly, that there were no votes against this new human right in both HRC and UNGA, informing the critical importance of the rights-based approach for the protection of the people and planet. Secondly, the rise in international solidarity can be comprehended through the recognition of the right by many nations, as well as Japan and India albeit having abstained from the voting in HRC, voted in favour of UNGA. Thirdly, that the championing for people and planet have gone beyond the North-South divide:

All this informs how the world is progressing to a collective will in response to the planetary crisis. Right to a Healthy environment bolsters climate justice and vice versa. I echo the feminists in COP27 too—we need solidarity, and we also need governments to take agency—to go beyond just waving their hands to the UNGA.

Solidarity rights have continuously evolved to address the collective goals and rights of communities and peoples. For instance, the Global South advocates for international equality among states, with a focus on rectifying inter-state injustices and global inequality. Such efforts are crucial in the context of climate justice, as they help mitigate the risks of conflicts and alleviate poverty.

Solidarity, therefore, emphasizes responsibility. As such, the triumphant adoption of the ‘new’ right should mark just the beginning of a journey towards a more sustainable world. It’s a call for and beyond solidarity—where governments may commit to strengthening political will for climate action, revitalize legal frameworks, and foster robust public discourse in pursuit of justice and fairness.

Bio: Susan Ann Samuel (BA LLB, Govt Law College Thiruvananthapuram, India; LLM University of Edinburgh) is a PhD candidate with University of Leeds, School of Politics and International Studies, UK. She is an Associate Fellow and Fellowship Officer with the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL), and a member of International Union for Conservation of Nature – World Commission on Environmental Law (IUCN WCEL) and Global Network of Human Rights and Environment (GNHRE). Previously, she has worked as a legal intern with the United Nations OHCHR in Phnom Penh, and UNOV/UNODC in Vienna. Her research interests include Climate Politics, Human Rights and Sustainable Development through a multidisciplinary lens.  

Twitter: @SusanAnnSamuel1

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