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UNGA resolution on human rights

UN General Assembly recognizes human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment

Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Head of the ILO’s Green Jobs Unit and Tim de Meyer, Senior Adviser in the NORMES Department, explain the broader implications of the new UNGA resolution declaring a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to be a universal human right.

Comment | 29 September 2022
Moustapha Kamal Gueye (L) and Tim de Meyer (R)
We can no longer escape, ignore or downplay the impact of climate change and environmental damage on economic growth and employment. Our common future is becoming critically dependent on making health and the environment our top priorities.

This reality was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), with a unanimous vote that affirmed a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right – and a right for all, not just a privilege for some.

The resolution, passed on 28 July 2022, has been a long time coming. International rights-based efforts to make working environments safer and healthier began in the early twentieth century, with the banning of white phosphorus in the matchmaking industry. The process that led to the UNGA resolution started with the 1972 Stockholm Declaration. This then paved the way for national commitments. Now, more than 150 national jurisdictions have enshrined its principles in their national legislation.

The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is also linked to other rights and parts of existing international human rights law. Logically so. Human beings are indivisible, so human rights are considered interrelated, inter-dependent and mutually reinforcing as well. Realizing a clean, healthy and sustainable environment requires sustained efforts to keep working environments free from accidents, injuries and diseases; applying a “just transition” logic which avoids trade-offs between the human right to work and the human right to a healthy environment; and protect biodiversity by supporting indigenous peoples’ livelihoods.

Last June – in a move that aligns with the UNGA Resolution – the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) International Labour Conference declared safe and healthy working environments a fundamental principle and right at work and designated two international labour Conventions covering occupational safety and health as Fundamental Conventions, thereby encouraging all of the ILO’s 187 members to ratify them.

ILO figures show that some 2.78 million people lose their lives at work every year, mostly due to preventable occupational diseases. Some 80 million full-time jobs are also at risk by 2030 because of climate change-related phenomena such as heat stress. The Organization estimates that 1.2 billion jobs rely on a healthy environment and well-functioning ecosystems.

It is encouraging to see that an increasing number of ILO Member States are initiating legislation to address heat stress, ensuring the right to work in safe working conditions and protecting workers from the effects of climate change. International organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders are also being called on to do more to safeguard these rights.

The issues of human rights, labour standards and the search for a just ecological transition are inextricably linked, and those involved in shaping the world of work can be active agents of change; protecting the environment, promoting sustainable development and ensuring healthy and safe working environments.

The ILO is helping to drive this change through the UN climate change negotiations and other environmental agreements, as well as via human rights processes. Essential to this will be creating broad-based support among the drivers of economic activity and social cohesion – employers and workers. This will be crucial if we are to achieve widespread acceptance of the climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies necessary to put our livelihoods and futures on a sustainable footing.

Success also depends on the ecological transition being a just transition. In this respect, the UN Secretary-General has called on all UN Member States to embrace the ILO Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all. This key policy document represents a framework to achieve environmental sustainability through the creation of decent work and the advancement of social justice.

The UN resolution can stimulate these efforts and lead us in the right direction.

Relevant Resolutions and Conventions

By Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Head of the Green Jobs Unit at the ILO & Tim de Meyer, Senior Adviser at the NORMES Department of the ILO.