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'The Time Has Come': UN Expert Calls for Global Recognition That Every Human Has Right to Healthy Environment

More than 100 countries have officially acknowledged the right to a clean environment in their constitutions, leaving the U.N. to catch up

Air pollution in Anyang, China. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment said Tuesday that the right to a healthy environment to live in should be considered a basic human right. (Photo: V.T. Polywoda/Flickr/cc)

An expert official for the United Nations is imploring the international community this week to recognize that all people should have a right to a healthy environment in which to live, a concept that has been enshrined in the constitutions of more than 100 nations but has never received recognition as a basic human right.

"In many ways, the United Nations needs to try and catch up with where national countries are," said John Knox, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Right and the Environment, at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. "The time has come to recognize this formal interdependence of human rights and the environment, not only at national level but at the U.N. level too."

Knox noted that living in a healthy environment affords access to numerous other necessities that have been recognized as human rights, including the right to life, food, and water.

"At the same time, the exercise of other freedoms, including the rights to information, participation, and remedy, is vital to the protection of the environment," he added.

Knox's recommendation came amid a multitude of setbacks around the world as green groups advocate for reduced carbon emissions and pollution in an effort to provide people with a healthy environment, and reverse the accelerating climate crisis.

Also on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. dismissed a civil rights case in which residents of a largely African-American town said their rights were violated when the government allowed the dumping of toxic coal ash at a landfill there. Residents say the coal ash, which contains mercury and arsenic—and which the EPA itself has linked to serious health problems—has caused nosebleeds, breathing difficulties, and cancer diagnoses in the community.

Air pollution has improved in some major Chinese cities, but remains an issue in much of the country, with coal use rising slightly overall in 2017.

And in Bali, a diver's video went viral after he posted footage on Monday of a huge mass of plastic at a popular diving spot.

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) applauded the UN expert's long-awaited recognition of environmental human rights, for which the group has advocated for years.

"Environmental degradation and the exhaustion of natural resources constitute some of the biggest threats to the realization of human rights in the 21st century," said Sebastien Duyck, senior attorney for CIEL. "Millions of people do not have access to clean air and clean water. Deforestation, climate change, and biodiversity loss are accelerating. And every week, environmental human rights defenders are killed. On the basis of the Special Rapporteurss report, States now have the responsibility to act to effectively protect the right to a healthy and sustainable environment."

"What remains to be seen is how the Human Rights Council will effectively address what is needed for the protection of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment," Duyck continued. "It is time for the Human Rights Council to act urgently on the Special Rapporteur's recommendation and move toward recognizing the right to a healthy and sustainable environment."

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