The United Nations (UN) has voted that a healthy environment is now a human right.

In a statement, the UN Environment Program said: “In a resolution passed Thursday (28 July 2022) at UN headquarters in New York City, the General Assembly said climate change and environmental degradation were some of the most pressing threats to humanity’s future. It called on states to step up efforts to ensure their people have access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

“The resolution is not legally binding on the 193 UN Member States. But advocates are hopeful it will have a trickle-down effect, prompting countries to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in national constitutions and regional treaties, and encouraging states to implement those laws. Supporters say that would give environmental campaigners more ammunition to challenge ecologically destructive policies and projects.”

161 Member States voted in favour of the motion, including South Africa. But, eight countries voted against the motion that recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. Those countries are Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Russia, and the Syrian Arab Republic.

The UN Environment Program maintains that this was a bold move and will assist activists. “Earlier this year, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean pledged more protections for so-called environmental defenders, including indigenous peoples campaigning against logging, mining and oil exploration in protected areas. In 2021, 227 environmental defenders were reportedly killed. And last year, New York state passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing citizens a right to a “healthful environment.”

“Those changes come as environmental campaigners increasingly use the law to force countries to address pressing environmental problems like climate change.”

“These resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful,” said David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the environment, before the vote.