The Right to a Healthy Environment & the Rights of Future Generations
In July, the United Nations awarded its highest human rights prize to the Global Coalition of civil society organizations, Indigenous Peoples, social movements, and local communities that led the successful campaign for “the universal recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” The prize is the culmination of decades of movement building, legal advocacy, and policy diplomacy that CIEL has fostered, supported, and when necessary, coordinated. Given once every five years, this award recognizes the coalition’s vital role in securing the UN General Assembly’s universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment in 2022. This is the first time the prize was awarded to a global coalition.
The historic recognition of this right is already informing legal precedent and advancing accountability around the globe. It is informing advisory proceedings of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice that will guide decision making; drive accountability; and support people, communities, and movements demanding their rights to a safe climate and a livable future. And it is a touchtone for integrating human rights into the global plastics treaty negotiations.
In a moment of serendipity, we learned of the UN Human Rights Prize just days before the public launch of the Maastricht Principles on the rights of future generations. At the heart of these Principles is the recognition that protecting the rights of future generations means simply according to those who will follow us the same human rights that each of us already enjoy. It means recognizing that we must avoid discrimination not only within generations, but across them, and safeguarding against that discrimination in the decisions and actions we take today. This critical conceptual breakthrough has opened the door to a growing community of experts and practitioners who are embracing the Principles as a legal tool to advance their work.
The development of the Principles themselves, like the recognition of the right to a healthy environment before them, demanded years of painstaking groundwork — including research, consultations, and synthesis — that drew on the expertise and experience of more than 200 human rights and legal experts, social movement representatives, and regional convenings. In the short time since their release, the Principles have been incorporated into amicus briefs for lawsuits and legal bodies, and welcomed by governments, human rights organizations, and human rights mandate holders. The Principles have also been highlighted as a critical input for the UN’s upcoming Summit for the Future, which aims to create a process to define and protect the rights of future generations.
The Principles are significant not only for what they have accomplished in their first few months, but for what they reflect: the next step toward developing a more holistic legal system that acknowledges — as cultures and peoples around the world have long done — the profound interconnections between humans and the environment. They recognize that we only have one Earth to live on, and that we must live within its limits if we are to survive and thrive as a species.
Running throughout the Maastricht Principles on the rights of future generations is the recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the need to address intragenerational justice as a step to address intergenerational justice, and the importance of integrating progress from other areas of law, including the rights of nature. For that reason, the Maastricht Principles, alongside the right to a healthy environment, are helping lay foundations for the legal change that we seek — not just over the next few years, but for the coming decades. Because thinking on those timelines is how we change history.