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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Solving environmental crisis is key to all human rights, Türk says

The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

20 October 2023

Delivered by

Video Statement by Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Human Rights 75 Regional Dialogue for Europe and Central Asia

20 October 2023 (Recording 27 September)


Distinguished Delegates,


Thank you for joining us for the Human Rights at 75 Regional Dialogue for Europe and Central Asia, which focusses on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

We are running out of time to address the triple planetary crisis, which is among the greatest threats that humanity faces today.

Our universal right to a healthy environment needs to be at the core of all national, regional and global policy-making. It is crucial to saving lives; to preserving peace; to rescuing the Sustainable Development Agenda; and to upholding fundamental principles of justice and humanity, as environmental degradation unleashes ever greater chaos.

Let me hark back 75 years – to a time of terrifying turmoil and destruction, when States came together in the realisation that solutions would stem from advancing human rights.

After the global slaughter of the First and Second World Wars, the Holocaust and the invention and first use of the atomic bomb. After the global Great Depression. After generations of colonial exploitation. After all this – and to prevent new cycles of violence -- States devised, developed and inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And while no-one could claim the Universal Declaration has solved every problem the world has faced, it has advanced immensely important solutions that have alleviated suffering and provided the basis for principled, positive action.

Movements to advance the equality of women, people of African descent and many others. Movements to free countries from colonial oppression and free peoples from authoritarian rule. The Universal Declaration has been an extraordinary compass for our collective journey away from war, misery, exploitation and chaos.

We need to return to that ethos.

People everywhere have a fundamental right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. They have a right to the assurance that the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the land they inhabit are free from contamination and degradation.

But across Europe and Central Asia, and in every other region of the world, the devastating impacts of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are stripping away the basic necessities of life from millions of people - destroying hopes, opportunities, homes, and lives.

Healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are the foundation of all life on our planet. But today we are in the midst of a climate and extinction crisis we ourselves have caused – and which threatens humanity itself.

Across Europe and Central Asia, young people, especially, have been driving increased awareness of the urgency of tackling environmental degradation. I congratulate these activists for their foresight and determination. We need far stronger efforts to develop laws and action plans that will lead to swift and decisive measures to end the use of fossil fuels, protect environmental human rights defenders, and promote a just transition to a sustainable and fair human rights economy.

I urge all States to recognize explicitly the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Adoption by key regional bodies of additional legal instruments on the right to a healthy environment could strengthen efforts to clarify who is responsible for environmental harm, and ensuring that they are held to account. I also welcome consideration of a proposed international crime of ecocide, in the case of especially severe environmental damage.

We need to see far stronger commitments from States, including in the current plastics and biodiversity talks, and in the context of development and climate financing.

 And we need to drive action.

To do that, we need people – people like you -- to keep pushing forward for justice and rights. A free and open civic space for environmental human rights defenders – including women, young people and indigenous defenders – is key to ensuring effective solutions to this crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly recognizes that participation is the key that can unlock more effective, resilient and sustainable climate action. States need to act on that – not only by creating spaces for discussion, but by opening the doors to meaningful influence.

We need to bring people’s demands for climate justice to Parliaments, to multistakeholder fora, to the courts – and everywhere in between. I am committed to working with States to advance the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including for today's children and future generations.

As we approach the Human Rights 75 high-level event in December, I urge all Member States, regional organizations, local administrations and civil society activists to make genuine commitments to rights-based environmental action through transformative pledges that reflect our shared dedication to a sustainable and equitable future.

We must commit to an equitable phase-out of all fossil fuels.

We must commit to holding all actors to account when they violate the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

We must commit to supporting the free, meaningful, active, safe, and informed participation in environmental decision-making of all people, including those who are disproportionately affected, such as Indigenous Peoples, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities.

We must act to protect the rights of future generations.

Thanks for helping us to advance all human rights – including the right to a healthy environment, for all.