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Towards global recognition of the Right to a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment.


Transforming agri-food systems to make them more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable is key to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 “Hunger Zero”. FAO acknowledges this through its Strategic Framework 2022-2031 which includes a better environment as an aspirational goal. One way to achieve a better environment is through its global legal protection and global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment.
Unlike many other human rights, the right to a healthy environment is not recognized in any global binding treaty. Yet, 155 States recognize it in their national legal frameworks and in 110 of these the right enjoys constitutional protection(1). Furthermore, certain regional human rights systems include this right in their treaties(2).  As this article will outline, recent legal developments around the globe appear to point in the direction of formal recognition by international law of the right to a healthy environment.  

In 2017, the Inter American Court issued a key Advisory Opinion that was based on domestic judicial cases and constitutional provisions in Bolivia and Ecuador. The Court stated that the right to a healthy environment operates to protect the environment's components “as legal interest in themselves, even in the absence of certainty or evidence about the risk to individual persons” (par. 62). This interpretation, fruit of an ecocentric focus, confers legal personality to nature and develops the idea of nature rights. The reasoning behind it is that humans are only one of several components of ecosystems, and therefore the environment must be protected regardless of its benefit to humans.

On 8 October 2021, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted Resolution 48/13, by 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions, recognizing the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (the right to a healthy environment). This is the first time that an organ of the United Nations explicitly recognized this right.   
The HRC Resolution did not echo the ecocentric interpretation of the Inter American Court. Rather, it adopted an anthropocentric understanding of the right to a healthy environment, “noting its relation to other rights”. Nonetheless, future global recognition and interpretation of this right may rely on certain precepts that underpin the ecocentric interpretation. For instance, it could highlight how humans relate to nature as a component of the ecosystem that surrounds them.  In particular, it could deepen the understanding of the value that the environment represents for humans, independent of their enjoyment of other human rights. An example is the special bond that Indigenous Peoples have with the environment, or the connection that each person enjoys during a walk in a park, while observing birds, or when listening to the sound of waterfalls. In short, how do humans perceive and enjoy the intrinsic value of nature(3). This is a question that will need to be well thought out in order to transform the answers into a right that can be legally upheld.

In conclusion, even if not legally binding, the HRC Resolution is of strategic significance in the progress towards global recognition of the right to a healthy environment. It brings into the political debate the opinion of 47 UN members representing every region of the world. Moreover, the Resolution itself invited the UN General Assembly to further consider the matter. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment has expressed, this Resolution will be a catalyst for action. The developments following the HRC Resolution are still to be seen, but it certainly represents a milestone that opens a window of possibilities, hopefully, inclined towards looking at the rights and interests of humans and of nature in unison.

Carolina Flores



1. A/HRC/43/53. Right to a healthy environment: good practices. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

2. The Inter American, African and Arab human rights systems include this right, and the Aarhus Convention and the Escazú Agreement recognize procedural environmental rights.

3. Recognized in instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.