The United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday recognized access to a clean and healthy environment as a fundamental right, formally adding weight to the global fight against climate change and its devastating consequences.
The vote passed with overwhelming support, despite criticism led by some countries, notably the United States and Britain.
The proposal, which was first discussed in the 1990s, is not legally binding, but has the potential to shape global standards. Lawyers involved in climate litigation say it could help them argue cases related to the environment and human rights.
“This has the potential to be life-changing in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths each year,” said David Boyd, the United Nations Special Envoy on Human Rights and the Environment, calling the decision a “historic success”. said.
The text, proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes and four abstentions from Russia, India, China and Japan, prompting a rare explosion of applause at the Geneva forum.
Britain, which had been among critics of the proposal in recent intense talks, voted in favor of the surprise, last-minute move. Its ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Rita French, said the UK was voting ‘yes’ because it shared supporters’ ambition to tackle climate change, but said states would not be bound by the terms of the resolution.
The United States did not vote because it is not currently a member of the 47-member council.
Costa Rica’s ambassador, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, said the decision would “send a powerful message to communities around the world battling climate change that they are not alone”.
Critics raised various objections, saying that the council was not an appropriate forum and citing legal concerns.
Environmental defenders have said Britain’s earlier critical stance was undermining its promises ahead of next month’s global climate summit in Glasgow.
Former UN special correspondent John Knox said before the vote that those who criticized the resolution were “on the wrong side of history”.
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 13.7 million deaths a year, or about 24.3% of the global total, are caused by environmental exposures such as air pollution and chemical exposure.
On Friday, the council also approved another proposal led by the Marshall Islands to create a new special coordination on climate change.
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