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Placard reads: Time's running out

A demonstrator holds a placard reading "time is running out" during a global youth climate action strike in Barcelona, on September 27, 2019 at the end of a global climate change week. (Photo: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

US/UK Blocking UN Effort to Enshrine Clean Environment as Universal Human Right

The stance puts the two powerful countries at risk of "standing against the common future of humanity."

Andrea Germanos

As environmental campaigners stress the urgency of a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution recognizing "the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment," reporting out Tuesday spotlights the U.S. and U.K.'s refusal to support the proposal.

The resolution—backed by dozens of countries—is before the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC), which is in an ongoing session this week.

"This week, the Human Rights Council could recognize the right to a healthy environment for all," human rights defender Fernanda Hopenhaym tweeted Tuesday. "This would be an important step forward to protect the environment, address the climate crisis, and provide a better platafornm for future generations."

"The time is now," she said.

With the Human Rights Council expected to adopt the resolution later this week with broad international support, the U.S. and U.K. are seen as key holdouts.

A spokesperson for the U.K. mission in Geneva told Reuters the government had "legal concerns" with the resolution. According to the reporting:

In discussions about the resolution, Washington also referred to legal concerns as well as worries that recognizing new rights could dilute traditional civil and political rights, according to sources following the talks.

The United States is not currently a Council member but is vying for a seat and can still join debates as an observer.

The countries' failure to support the resolution, according environmental campaigners backing the measure, is especially egregious in light of the climate and biodiversity crises and the fact that the U.K. is hosting the COP 26 climate summit later this month.

The opposition also stands in stark contrast to actions already taken by over 150 states to recognize the right to a healthy environment.

Refusal to back the resolution would be a huge mistake, Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said in a statement last month.

"Governments' failure to act on climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence may well be the biggest inter-generational human rights violation in history," she said, urging "all states to support recognition of the right to a healthy environment, at the UN and... national level."

"Those who do not," she said, "will be on the wrong side of history and standing against the common future of humanity." 

The reporting from Reuters came the same day a coalition representing over 1,300 civil society and Indigenous people organizations from scores of countries delivered to the HRC a call to "urgently recognize" the human right to a healthy, safe environment.

"In view of the global environmental crisis that currently violates and jeopardizes the human rights of billions of people on our planet, global recognition of this right is a matter of utmost urgency," the document states. "As we all know, there are no human rights on a dead planet."

Also urging passage of the proposal this week is UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David R. Boyd, who urged all council member states to "be on the right side of history."

In a previous Twitter thread listing the top 10 reasons to support the resolution, Boyd suggested that too much time has ready been spent wasting for such action.

"The UN's first Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Fatmah Zohrah Ksentini, urged recognition of the R2HE way back in 1994," he wrote.

"Twenty-seven years later, the time is now," Boyd added. "As Dr. Martin Luther King said, 'The time is always right to do what is right!'"


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