October 9, 2021

By Xari Jalil


For the first time, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to formally recognize the right to a clean and sustainable environment. Environmentalists and climate campaigners see this as a result of hard work in activism.

The vote was passed with overwhelming support within the council, despite criticism in the lead-up from some countries, notably the United States and Britain.

The clean environment resolution was passed with a vote of 43-0 with China, India, Japan, and Russia abstaining. The United States opposed the resolution but did not have a vote because it is not a member of the UN Human Rights Council since former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the body in 2018.

Ironically, while the UK also initially opposed the vote, it is supposed to be the host of the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.The UK eventually voted yes, the nation’s human rights representative complained that the resolution could create “ambiguity” and stressed that the newly approved measure is “not legally binding.”

“This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year,” commented David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

The text, proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Swit­zerland prompted a rare burst of applause in the Geneva forum.

Costa Rica’s ambassador, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, said the decision will “send a powerful message to communities around the world struggling with climate hardship that they are not alone.”

The Resolution

The resolution states that while the human rights implications of environmental damage are felt by individuals and communities around the world, the consequences are felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations, including indigenous peoples, older persons, persons with disabilities, and women and girls.

It also states that “the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land, and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, the resulting loss of biodiversity, and the decline in services provided by ecosystems interfere with the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.”

States – says the resolution –  have the obligation to respect, protect and promote human rights, including in all actions undertaken to address environmental challenges, and to take measures to protect the rights of all, as recognized in different international instruments and reflected in the framework principles on human rights and the environment, prepared by the
Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment,2 and that additional measures should be taken for those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm.”

Impact in Pakistan

Meanwhile, environmental activists in Pakistan while applauding the resolution still doubt if it will change much on the ground.

Karachi based environment activist and founder of PAQI (Pakistan Air Quality Initiative), Abid Omar, applauded the action.

“This is excellent news; grassroots groups such as in this case can have a major impact,” he said.

“This is an extraordinary breakthrough for strengthening the legal basis to those who are fighting to improve our environment, and will help accelerate our progress towards mitigating the adverse effects of climate change,” says Omar.

“It’s a good thing. And it will be useful in moving the debate along here. That said the LHC has already held clean air to be a fundamental right over 10 years ago,” says Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer based in Lahore.

The high court’s decision is a statement on the constitution by a provincial high court. It is not limited to Punjab, says Alam.

“I can’t see it being super helpful. But I see myself using it when informing people out courts got to the principle a whole decade before the UN – and we’re still not doing anything about it,” he says.

“For all practical purposes, the question whether this resolution will have an impact on Pakistan, remains rhetorical,” says Dr Imran Khalid, a PhD in Environmental Policy, and who heads the Environment and Climate Change Department at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in  Islamabad. “This is our tragedy.”

Meanwhile, UN rights are legal in international law – but in local law, the legality will be voluntary.

That said, as Rafay Alam pointed out the LHC decision, a Shahla Zia v. WAPDA case that won international renown, was also concerned with the right to a clean and healthy environment as fundamental to the inalienable right to life.

“The most it will do is give us a pseudo-legal basis on which to advocate for environmental rights,” says Aadil an environmental activist.

Aadil who has been an organizer for the climate strike in pakistan, says that the UN resolution will have limited impact in Pakistan, since the State “only selectively implements/enforces internationally recognized human rights, despite ratifying charters and resolutions designed to protect them.”

“But, this UN resolution can be a useful tool for environmental, human rights, and climate justice activists in Pakistan to apply pressure on the government where it is in violation of the clauses in this document,” he says. “I’m reminded of how we in Karachi Bachao Tehreek sent a complaint to the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing about how the right to adequate housing was being gratuitously violated during the Gujjar and Orangi Nala demolitions, and as a result the UN OHCHR put out an official statement condemning the demolitions and the human rights violations that accompanied them. Activists working on environmental issues can take advantage of this resolution.”

Aadil says the government is already in gross violation of the first 3 paragraphs on page 2 of this document in various working class communities and “development projects” across Karachi, such as Gujjar/Orangi Nala, Malir, Ibrahim Hyderi, and Machhar Colony where the government has announced a new “coastal development zone” (KCCDZ).




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