Today, in front of the United Nations General Assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron is set to launch the Global Pact for the Environment. Its primary aim is to bolster international efforts to protect the environment from climate change, pollution, and other threats, but it would also help codify and strengthen important human rights protections. Most importantly, the pact would expressly require states to protect the right to a healthy environment.
The right to a healthy environment is embraced in the pact’s very first article – and with good reason. Our health, survival, and general wellbeing are bound to a healthy environment. Just last week, the UN expert on toxic waste and human rights admonished the UK government for dangerous levels of air pollution, saying that it “continues to flout its duty to ensure adequate air quality and protect the rights to life and health of its citizens.” Air pollution affects the health of millions of people around the world living in major urban areas, with more people dying prematurely each year due to pollution than from malaria and HIV combined.
But a healthy environment goes beyond air pollution. In Kosovo, we documented how the UN’s decisions to locate camps for displaced Roma on lead-contaminated sites left Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities with large medical bills and concerned about their children’s health and ability to concentrate in school. In Kenya, climate change has affected communities’ sources of food, water, and livelihoods.
Similar stories in Malawi, Bangladesh, and Thailand show how an unhealthy environment can undermine a broad range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, food, housing, and sanitation, among others. It is precisely because the environment underpins so many rights and almost every aspect of the human experience that a globally recognized right to a healthy environment is so important.