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UN Move On Right To Healthy And Sustainable Environment: Implications In South Asia – OpEd

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Question abound across the globe as to whether the recent move by the United Nations (UN) in recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as human rights is a big breakthrough or a mere solace prize? The answer may depend on individual stance on the age old dogmas of optimism, pessimism and realism. This write-up briefly concentrates on the global implications of the recent UN move with particular focus in South Asia. 

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The UN General Assembly (UNGA) also known as the world parliament approved a resolution (A/RES/76/300) overwhelmingly on July 28 recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as human rights for all people. The resolution was passed unopposed with eight abstentions and the eight abstaining states ─ China, Russia, Belarus, Cambodia, Syria, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Ethiopia belong to a bloc in the global geopolitical landscape.  

The proactive role of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland in advocating and stirring other UN member states to recognize such rights is a step forward and may be mind-boggling. In April 2022, a similar resolution was taken by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) declaring the access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as human rights.    

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appreciated the attainment as historic in the wake of ongoing reality and changing dynamics of global environmentalism. Echoing Guterres, the executive director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Inger Andersen hailed the drive as a milestone for the planet and triumph of the people.    

Dr. Christina Voigt, Professor of Oslo University and also the Chair for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Environmental Law has acknowledged the change as a significant development in addressing the inherent legal knot between human rights and environmental protection.  

Many state heads, environmentalists and rights activists have also greeted this ambitious initiative expecting that the organizational move may accelerate the landscape of environmental advocacy in all 193 members of the UN, being a recognized guardian for upholding the global peace, security, human rights, justice, welfare and solidarity. However, from now on, environmental campaigners may use the resolution as an ammunition in their battles against environmentally destructive policy instruments and development projects in many countries.     

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But there is trivial practical value of the resolution taken by the UNGA as such resolution does not create any legal implications obliging the member states until and unless conventions and treaties are adopted by the UN for the true realization of such rights. As per articles 10 and 14 of the UN Charter 1945, the UNGA resolutions are recommendatory in nature if such recommendations are not related with the UN’s budgetary decisions and instructions to its subordinate organs.    

So, presumed success story based on hue and cry of such resolution is meaningless to a large extent, though the resolution has moral obligations to the UN member states. Following the move, countries may be encouraged to enshrine the right to a healthy and sustainable environment into their national laws especially in constitutions, bilateral agreements and regional conventions and treaties.     

However, in a similar move, the UNGA adopted the right to water and sanitation in 2010. The socking data is that around 2.2 billion people across the world are still lacking access to safe drinking water denoting 1 in 3 persons despite over 70 percent of earth’s surface is covered with water. More than half of the world population i.e., 4.2 billion are devoid of having safely managed sanitation amenities while 3 billion are lacking in basic hand washing facilities. 

In fact, almost all countries have statutory laws concentrating to control pollution and protect environment but implementation of the laws is a real concern to bring the perpetrators particularly governments and corporations to accountability and to reward the victims. There is no real winner in the process of victimization of environmental conflicts or natural disasters. But there are enormous principles of international environmental law such as precautionary principle, polluter pays principle, intra and intergenerational equity, common but differentiated state responsibility and sustainable development. But these principles sound well in high income countries and seem fancy to low income countries like show piece.     

A report says that countries across the world in the last 40 years, have framed 38 times more laws and policy relating to environment treating it as a cross-cutting terminology. According to a database, there are over 3,000 multilateral and bilateral international environmental instruments existing in the world. So, the exponential growth of environmental instruments including treaties and conventions over the last 50 years is remarkable but yet the climate commitment by nations especially the big polluting countries including China, USA, Russia, UK, France, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan and Germany is in shambles. 

Much like the rest of the world, eight South Asian countries including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan followed the foothold of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration in integrating right to environment into their constitutions and other statutory laws. In India, the 42nd constitutional amendment focusing the right to environment was added in articles 48A and 51A (g) in 1976. In Bangladesh, the similar pattern of right to environment is inserted in the constitution under article 18A through the 15th amendment in 2011.   

In reality, the journey towards environmental justice in South Asian countries started with pollution control and gradually shifted on the road to environmental conservation and protection. There is little scarcity of laws in this region but again weaker enactment and enforcement is a big challenge. Poor enforcement of environmental policy instruments is a global problem and the same problem gets worsened entering into South and Southeast Asian and African countries except a few. 

Governments in these countries are apparently complacent in serving the interests of big production companies and corporations expecting tax benefits. Most development projects are also carried out undermining environmental jurisprudence as to environmental impact assessment (EIA) while their green laws remain in bookshelves. But the pressure of donor agencies and development partners aside with civil society organizations (CSOs) in some occasions somewhat oblige governments in these countries to enact laws covering diverse aspects of environment and ecology. 

Bhutan’s constitution guarantees minimum 60 percent of the total land under forest cover to prevent environmental degradation and ecosystem. In Bangladesh, there are 210 laws expressly or impliedly related to environment. The war-torn Afghanistan is battling for peace and security while the country is blessed worth US $1 trillion natural resources. The tourism dependent Maldives is not only the most at-risk country in South Asia and but also in the world considering climate vulnerability. In the economically defunct Sri Lanka with environmental beauty and bio-diversity, right to a healthy environment is a less priority issue. Apart from socio-economic backwardness, the political turmoil, escalating level of corruption and environmental peril in South Asian countries create obstruction for better environmental governance. 

More than 120 countries, being parties to at least one international or regional binding treaty or a convention proclaiming the right to a healthy environment have incorporated this right in their constitutional pledge. Simultaneously, there are over 1200 environmental courts and tribunals apart from green benches in all over the world. The UN and its specialized environmental agency United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) along with hundreds of environmental CSOs, activists and whistleblowers over the years played a critical role for the present development. 

The apex courts in South Asian countries have tremendously contributed in forwarding the scheme of environmental rule of law and greening the judiciary. The process to recognize, promote and protect environmental justice under the public interest litigations mostly provoked by the CSOs and reputed lawyers to stimulate judicial activism in South Asia but the irony of fact until now is the implementation of the court orders and instructions putting environmental issues as obsolete ones. It is another black chapter for the pursuit of environmental justice in South Asian region hosting 25 percent of the entire world population.  

Religious commitment is also seen in some Indian subcontinental countries, once colonized by the Great Britain for about 200 years. In India, since the Vedic period, the prime motto of socio-personal life was to live in harmony with nature. The Rigveda entails the hymn that “the sky is like father; the earth is like mother and the space is their son; the universe consisting the three is like a family and any kind of damage done to any one of the three throws the universe out of balance”.  

But the reality is different for environmental governance. In the global environment performance index (EPI) of the Yale university in 2022, India ranked the lowest among 180 countries, while the position of Myanmar, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Pakistan is respectively second, third, fourth and fifth. The position of Afghanistan is 81 in the world but top in South Asia and the rank of Bhutan is 85, second best, and Maldives is 113, third best in South Asia. The position of Sri Lanka is 132 and the daughter of the Himalayas Nepal is 162. Top five performers in the EPI are Denmark, UK, Finland, Malta and Sweden replicating most environmental sustainability and climatic enlightenment of Europe.    

The universal acknowledgement of right to a healthy and sustainable environment by the UNGA may be a big breakthrough in the containment of global pollution paving the way for conservation of global ecology, ecosystem and biodiversity. Air pollution, mainly causes owing to burning of fossil fuels kills 13 people per minute worldwide while air and water pollution cost Middle East and North Africa (MENA) economies 2 percent loss of their GDP. The economic loss in Asia and Latin American countries is more severe due to climate change and environmental degradation.  

The UN sustainable developments goals (SDGs) with the commitment leaving no one behind can only be achieved by 2030 subject to integrated solutions to the persisting global humanitarian and environmental challenges. Otherwise, the lofty SDGs amid safe and green planet will remain like a mere dream and bear the consequences like the MDGs.  

Coordinated efforts of all stakeholders should push the world with nearly 8 billion population to live in synchronization with nature orchestrating a healthy and sustainable environment amid lasting peace and prosperity. Mentionable that the Brundtland Commission report titled Our Common Future published in October 1987 under the World Commission on Environment and Development, firstly recognized the phraseology sustainable development defining it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.  

In accordance with the words of a noted Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, “We only get one planet but yet many of us live like we have three to four more. Our air, lands, and water bodies, which we have polluted, are all parts of this environment.” Nobel laureate economist Muhammad Yunus have linked a cause of poverty with environmental degradation. Professor Yunus in his book, ‘A World of Three Zeros’, have shared his view on global concerns stressing the dire need for zero carbon, zero poverty and zero unemployment for a sustainable world.    

So, the intake of optimists, pessimists and realists may be different regarding the move of the UN in recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and it may not mingle in the same line. Hence, the hailing speeches of the responsible UN dignitaries, its attached specialized bodies and others are their routine functions and nothing more than the traditional part of environmental diplomacy and commitment for environmental justice. To harvest the success in recognizing such rights, the world may have to wait and see for decades or even more to evaluate the recognition as a breakthrough or a solace prize in the globalized but interdependent world. 

About Author: Emdadul Haque is an Independent Human Rights Researcher and Freelance Contributor based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Previously, he served academia for more than a decade and lastly as an Assistant Professor of Law at Southeast University. He holds Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws from Rajshahi University. He can be reached via email: [email protected] and on Twitter: @emdadlaw 

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