Statement of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment at the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly

Delivered by Dr David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment


Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Dr. David R. Boyd
UN Environment Assembly
12 March 2019

The UN Human Rights Council created the mandate on the relationship between human rights and the environment in 2012. My predecessor, Professor John Knox, did a superb job in his six years as mandate holder, clarifying that the full enjoyment of many human rights depend on a healthy environment and that protecting the environment depends on the exercise of human rights, such as access to information, participation, and freedom of expression.
As Special Rapporteur I serve as both watchdog and advocate, encouraging States and businesses to fulfil their human rights obligations related to the environment. I present reports annually to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on environmental problems that violate and threaten human rights.

For example, I presented my first report to the Council last week in Geneva, making a clear and compelling case that air pollution is a critically important human rights issue. The World Health Organization reports that polluted air causes 7 million premature deaths every year. That’s more deaths than caused by war, murder, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria combined. How could this not be a human rights issue? And that terrible toll includes 600,000 children aged five or under. This violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a healthy and sustainable environment.

As Special Rapporteur, I also conduct official country visits. My first mission was to Fiji last December. It was a powerful experience to witness the devastating impacts that climate change is already having on people’s lives, health, and human rights.

Acknowledging the relationship between environmental challenges and human rights issues can catalyze stronger action by States and businesses and empower the millions of people worldwide working so hard to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The human right to live in a healthy environment was first mentioned in the Stockholm Declaration in 1972. Over the past fifty years, this right has been defined as including procedural and substantive elements. The procedural rights include access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice. The substantive elements include clean air, safe water and adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, healthy biodiversity and ecosystems, a non-toxic environment, and a safe climate.

Today, 130 States are parties to regional treaties--in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East-- explicitly incorporating the right to a healthy environment. In more than 110 States, this right enjoys constitutional protection. It is also included in environmental laws of over 100 States. In total, at least 155 States recognize, in law, the right to a healthy environment.

The time has come to recognize that everyone, everywhere has the right to live, work, study, and play in healthy and sustainable environments. In our joint report to the UN General Assembly last fall, Professor Knox and I called for urgent recognition of this right at the global level. I look forward to working with many of you to respect, protect, and fulfill this fundamental human right.