In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing access to clean water, and sanitation as a human right, by a recorded vote of 122 in favor, none against, and 41 abstentions, trailing Idaho by more than 50 years: In 1954, 85 percent of Idaho voters passed the policy that “clean water in the streams of Idaho is in the public interest.” *
The executive director of UN Environment, Erik Solheim, and Professor John H. Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, are urging the UN to consider a resolution to recognize a human right to a healthy environment, a right as necessary to human dignity, equality and freedom as any other human right.
The link is most obvious when we see the illness, destruction and death that result from pollution, toxic substances, and other forms of environmental degradation. Over one million children die every year as a result of air and water pollution alone, and the lives of countless more children and adults are shortened or blighted because of their exposure to unsafe environmental conditions.
Moreover, environmental harm is inherently discriminatory, affecting those who are already suffering other human rights abuses. Climate change and the loss of biodiversity threaten even worse consequences for future generations.
Knox documents many ways that environmental harm interferes with human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, and water.
[T]he exercise of human rights can strengthen environmental protection. When people enjoy their rights to information about environmental threats, to participation in environmental policy-making, and to access legal remedies for harm, they can and do fight to ensure that they are able to live in a healthy and sustainable environment...
An average of four environmental defenders around the world are killed every week, and many more are harassed, suffer violence, or are unlawfully detained or imprisoned. We cannot achieve sustainable development if we do not protect those who are on the front lines of environmental protection...
Local issues affected by the environmental policy include the risk of shipping coal and oil near our water, the smelter, and more. As Governor Little said in his State of the State Address, “Water is Idaho’s lifeblood.”
It is time to expand our awareness to include all the contributors to a healthy environment here: clean water, clean air, clean earth, clean energy, more fire protection.
The right to a healthy environment is inherent in other human rights, including rights to life, health and an adequate standard of living. Recognizing the human right to a healthy environment is the keystone in any discussion of other human rights.
* The fundamental UN human rights treaties do not include this right because the modern environmental movement began in the late 1960s, just after the adoption of the two International Covenants on human rights, and twenty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.