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Litmus Test for the Council of Europe: Time to Recognise and Protect the Right to Healthy Environment

Everyone has the human right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Most human rights systems in the world recognise this, but the European human rights convention needs to catch up. This week there’s an opportunity for European governments to collectively recognise people’s right to a healthy environment and send a clear signal that they are committed to its effective protection. We’re pushing for that to happen.

On May 16-17, 2023, Council of Europe nations will gather for a once-in-a-generation Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Established more than seventy years ago, the Council of Europe has been shaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To demonstrate their unity in the face of this devastating war, European governments are gathering to reaffirm their commitment to core values, including the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. But doing so will require more than a family photo featuring heads of State: European States should use this opportunity to fill a yawning gap in the European human rights framework and take a decisive step towards the effective protection of the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

For decades, the European human rights framework has played a critical role in Europe and globally in the protection of human rights. But human-caused environmental threats increasingly imperil the protection of these same rights. And yet so far, European governments have failed to adequately address these threats through the political institutions of the Council of Europe.

Environmental justice

We are experiencing a triple planetary crisis — pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are threatening our environment, our health, our rights, and our lives. Every year, air pollution kills an estimated 1,200 children prematurely in Europe. Extreme temperatures and aberrant weather events continue to illustrate the devastating impacts of climate change on human rights and the planet, as described in the latest IPCC climate reports. And the environmental harms of the war in Ukraine are so severe that they are expected to last well beyond the current war and continue to take a toll on future generations. 

March for Climate Justice in London. © Angela Christofilou / Greenpeace
Greenpeace UK joins Civil society groups global day of action. The protest is to show solidarity with communities who are experiencing climate impacts in the global south and the cost of living crisis in the UK. Campaigners demand that polluting companies like Shell and countries like the UK pay their fair share to repair climate damage.

Most national legal systems have already recognised that effective enjoyment of human rights requires the protection of the right to a healthy environment. Following the mobilisation of more than 1000 civil society organisations and Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed in a historic vote in July 2022 that everyone has the human right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. 

By now, the European human rights framework remains the only regional human rights system whose political institutions do not yet explicitly recognise the right. 

The Reykjavik Summit provides a historic opportunity for Member States to reaffirm the commitments they have already made elsewhere to protect people and the environment by recognising the right and committing to its effective protection through the drafting of a dedicated protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Human rights defenders

Establishing the legal protection of an autonomous right to a healthy environment by the European Court of Human Rights through a protocol will help catalyse meaningful environmental protection and more ambitious climate action across the continent. It will promote legal certainty and consistency across Europe, including for corporate actors. Further, it will contribute to the vital recognition of environmental activists as defenders of human rights, enhancing protection for those who are among the human rights defenders most at risk. 

Pacific Climate Activists hold an action in Vanuatu for Climate Justice during COP26. © Greenpeace
During the opening of the COP26, 200 women gathered at Mt Yasur, an active volcano on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. The women hold signs, calling for climate justice in the Pacific.

In brief, the benefits are clear: all that’s needed is the political will. The necessary next step, following the political recognition of the right by all 46 Council of Europe Member States at the UN, is the actionable and enforceable recognition of this right at home. 

The world is in a race against time to avoid the worst outcomes of the triple planetary crisis, and it is high time for European governments to live up to their responsibility. So what are Council of Europe States waiting for? 

Take Action

  • Tweet at your country Representative at the Council of Europe, asking them to recognize the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in Reykjavik using this social media toolkit.
  • Sign up to receive more updates on the right to a healthy environment campaign at the Council of Europe

This blog is authored by Sébastien Duyck, Senior Attorney; Campaign Manager Human Rights & Climate, Center for International Environmental Law, Amy Jacobsen, Legal Counsel Communications, Greenpeace International, Katharina Rall, Senior Researcher in the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, and Chiara Liguori,  Climate Justice Policy Adviser and Researcher, Amnesty International.

Source : Greenpeace