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The time for change is now

Guernica 37 and the wider Guernica Group entirely supports the decision of the UN Human Rights Council , on 8 October 2021, to back a Swiss-sponsored resolution to recognise a new fundamental right: access to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

The resolution was proposed by Switzerland, Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, and Slovenia, and passed with 43 in favour, and 4 abstentions.

Of those 4 abstentions, Russia, India, and China are no great surprise, particularly given the level of contribution to the current rate of pollution by India and China and Russia’s economic dependence on fossil fuel exports. However, it is of concern that the text of the resolution was also criticised by the UK and the US.

The ‘global consequences’ of a failure to take decisive action cannot be overstated and will have a catastrophic impact on the world’s most vulnerable. Environmental degradation, unsafe living conditions and increasing food poverty risk forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee countries that are no longer sustainable.

High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet stated in September that the issues were “the most important challenge for human rights” across the world. In our view, these seismic upheavals not only present a challenge but threaten to reverse the last century’s hard-won gains in the fields of human rights, poverty alleviation and social justice.

The majority of the damage is man-made: from stripping of natural assets and resources to overdevelopment and contamination. There is also a growing threat to those defenders who seek to expose states, companies and individuals that exploit and degrade the environment. Individuals seeking to expose wrongdoings suffer threats to their lives, or prosecution and imprisonment for attempting to raise awareness and stop the abuse.

The resolution, although important, and one that brought about a “rare burst of applause in the Geneva forum”, is not legally binding. However, it is perhaps another step along the road to sustainability and possibly a sign of a changing attitudes, which we hope will lead to the enactment of a binding legislative structure that imposes obligations upon states and corporations, with a clear route to accountability.

Issues of accountability are already being explored with complaints pending before the European Court of Human rights, for example, concerning the question of whether a State can be held legally responsible for a failure to ‘do enough’ to reduce emissions.

These efforts are important. However, a formal and developed framework that provides a clear and practical route to ensuring accountability must be introduced immediately. These cases should not be speculative, and they should not have to test state responsibility, as the responsibility should already exist and be subject to enforcement.


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