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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

“Well past the hour” for countries to align climate laws with human rights obligations, says High Commissioner

28 May 2024

Delivered by

Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The Promise of International Law in the Face of Ecological Crises
University of California, Los Angeles Law Promise Institute Europe

A warm thank you to the UCLA Law Promise Institute and all organizing partners for bringing together this timely discussion.

The world is at a crossroads, facing a multitude of challenges and uncertainties. Rising, intense conflict. Deepening inequalities. Geopolitical divisions are eroding trust and shattering our sense of common humanity at the very moment we need each other most. And, of course, the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution is no longer a dystopian future threat, but is having a devastating impact on lives and livelihoods here and now.

As you all well know, without immediate and tangible action, the human rights impact of environmental destruction will increase exponentially.

Already, 7 million people die each year from air pollution alone.

Already, extreme weather events that previously would have been unheard of in many places – intense heatwaves, droughts, flooding and tropical cyclones – are becoming commonplace, killing thousands and displacing millions.

Already, entire ecosystems, the food systems and the people who depend on them are on the brink of collapse.

The UN Secretary-General recently said that we are waging a suicidal war on nature.

The only way to win is to stop, and to change.

Human rights offer a roadmap – the roadmap – for the transformative change we need to make peace with nature, preserving our planet and our future.

The human rights framework is universal. It compels us to act.

Not out of fear, but out of a commitment to solutions – rooted in justice and human dignity.

Solutions that will actually work.

Last year, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This was a document produced in the aftermath of profound global trauma and horror.

Long before the world knew what we know today about the threat of climate change.

But the Declaration’s promises still ring just as true and relevant. 

Amidst the many crises we face, it was incredibly moving to receive the hundreds of pledges made by governments, civil society and the private sector at our Human Rights 75 initiative in December, highlighting the power and urgency of human rights as a catalyst for change.

As an outcome of the rich consultations held throughout last year, I developed a vision statement – Human Rights: A Path for Solutions. One of its core messages is the need for environmental action to be grounded in human rights.

I pointed to several priorities of direct relevance to your discussions – including the normative advancement of the right to a healthy environment; accountability for environmental harm; the justiciability of the adequacy of Government measures to prevent such harm; empowering people to exercise their rights safely; and an equitable and just transition to sustainable economies and societies.


It is encouraging that the search for solutions to climate change continues at pace. Groundbreaking developments in international law over recent years are contributing enormously to this. The challenge, as always, remains putting words into action.

But we can be encouraged by much concrete progress.

In 2022, the UN General Assembly recognized what we already knew to be true – that all people everywhere have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Since the resolution was adopted, it has been referenced by the UN Environment Assembly, the world’s highest level decision-making body on environmental matters. It has also been crucial in outcomes of key climate, biodiversity and chemical negotiations, and judicial decisions. As an example, the recent decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found extensive violations of the right to a healthy environment of the La Oroya community in Peru due to the inadequate regulation of a mine and smelter complex.

Some 83 per cent of UN Member States have now formally recognized the right to a healthy environment in their domestic law.

Discussions about the right to a healthy environment are underway in regional bodies, such as the Council of Europe and ASEAN, carrying the potential to advance a common understanding of this right, and to strengthen mechanisms for its implementation and enforcement.

These efforts are important. They can provide clarity and facilitate implementation of the right to a healthy environment and provide a basis to hold governments and business accountable for environmental harm.

While there is no universally agreed definition of the right to a healthy environment, it is generally understood to include a number of elements such as: clean air; a safe and stable climate; access to safe water and adequate sanitation; healthy and sustainably produced food; non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play; healthy biodiversity and ecosystems; access to information; access to justice; and the right to participate in decision-making. Many of these elements are rights in and of themselves.

Importantly, the right to a healthy environment bridges – draws tightly together – environmental and human rights law, offering a path to solutions for both people and planet. In a sense, it overcomes fragmentation that has been an issue of discussion in the international law community and among academics.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that a rights-based approach to climate action leads to more sustainable and effective outcomes.

There are also increasing requests for advisory opinions related to climate change before regional and international courts.

Young people from the Pacific region worked together with the Government of Vanuatu and a multi-stakeholder coalition to have the UN General Assembly request the International Court of Justice to clarify States’ legal and human rights obligations with respect to climate change. The Court is now deliberating on its opinion.

A request by the Governments of Chile and Colombia has initiated a similar process before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

 Only last week, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea issued an Advisory Opinion on climate change, finding anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions constitute marine pollution and that States have a binding obligation to limit temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. The Tribunal described climate change as an existential threat that posed human rights concerns.

And a little over a month ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of a group of Swiss women who had said they were at greater risk of dying from heatwaves, due to weak national climate policies. The ruling found that States have enforceable human rights obligations on climate change with respect to the right to private life, family life and home. The Court also held that the adequacy of Government measures to address the harm due to climate change can be challenged in the national courts. This is a major breakthrough across the States making up the Council of Europe, and will likely influence courts in other regions.

This growing body of jurisprudence reflects an understanding that the climate crisis is a human rights crisis.

A crisis that we are still not doing nearly enough to stop.

But the power of strategic litigation to drive significant shifts in policy and practices of governments and businesses is clear.

My Office is following all of these proceedings closely, and intervening in key instances. I am proud that we are part of this movement that is central to our shared future.

And I would like to thank all of you for your own hard work to advance moral, policy and legal clarity and to enhance accountability.


The climate crisis – like many crises – is deeply unjust, disproportionately affecting the world’s poor and marginalized and unleashing its greatest impact on countries and communities who have contributed very little to creating it, and often lack adequate resources to address it.

In particular, the impacts of environmental degradation often perpetuate historical and ongoing racism, discrimination and injustice rooted in the legacies of enslavement and colonialism.

For this reason, it is key that climate policies take into account and combat racial and other forms of discrimination and inequalities.

And yet, we see so-called ‘sacrifice zones’ where poor or marginalized communities are forced to bear a hugely disproportionate burden of industrial pollution, essentially allowing economic growth and profit to trump the rights and health of those who reside there.

We see Indigenous Peoples, from colonial times to the present, denied full enjoyment of their right to development, to their traditional knowledge, and to their lands, territories and resources. Despite the fact they play a more critical role than ever in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity.

The pending advisory opinions on climate change are excellent opportunities to reinforce the clear duties of States to protect the human rights of all people, without discrimination, against the devastating impacts of the climate crisis.


We are well past the hour for States to act to align their climate laws and policies with their human rights obligations.

Securing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment also requires that we use the tools of the law – including criminal law – more expansively to address environmental harms.

I have supported the call to bring the crime of ecocide within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and welcome the recent establishment by its Office of the Prosecutor of a consultative process on prosecuting environmental degradation through the existing ICC framework.

These steps put down a clear marker that environmental crimes should be considered on a par with the human impacts of other atrocities.

But more work is needed to give greater “teeth” to environmental justice efforts. Those responsible for willful and malicious destruction of the environment should face appropriate liability – including in criminal form – at national level.

A notable step towards criminalization of environmental degradation was recently taken by the European Parliament. It adopted a Directive requiring European Union Member States to impose sanctions and criminal penalties against anyone who causes environmental destruction or widespread and substantial environmental damage.

Member States have two years to transpose the rules into national law.

Such recognition of environmental crimes, including the crime of ecocide, by international, regional, and domestic legal systems would strengthen accountability for environmental harms.

It would also speak to people’s sense of fundamental justice, and that violence against the environment is serious harm to our common good.

And act as a behavioral deterrent, including for businesses, to cease practices which perpetrate environmental harm.


Environmental crises often have multiple and diverse causes, as well as impacts. This calls for multiple and diverse approaches to achieve environmental justice.

As an example, in its resolution 51/35, the Human Rights Council requested my Office to support the efforts of the Government of the Marshall Islands to integrate transitional justice within its national nuclear strategy. As you may know, the people of the Marshall Islands continue to live with the adverse effects of nuclear waste, radiation and contamination from 67 nuclear weapons tests carried out on their Islands, including displacement and long-term impacts on their health and wellbeing.

Transitional justice processes help countries address the legacy of large-scale human rights violations and abuses.

They aim to ensure accountability, serve justice to victims and affected communities, and prevent future violations and harm.

Perhaps most importantly, they put victims and affected communities at the centre of all efforts, ensuring they are meaningfully involved in the decisions and actions that will impact them.

The UN Secretary-General has recently emphasized the transformative potential of transitional justice to positively impact lives and futures.

I firmly believe the four key elements of transitional justice can also be appropriate for addressing environmental crises and the large-scale human rights violations they so often cause.

The first element of transitional justice is truth, which entitles victims, affected communities and the public to seek and obtain all relevant information concerning violations of human rights, including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, such as data on climate change, its causes and its impacts. Truth-seeking initiatives should also offer a platform for affected communities to share their experiences, priorities and concerns. Unfortunately, truth is all too often denied as we have seen, for example, in the misinformation campaigns of the fossil fuel lobby.

The second element of transitional justice is justice itself, whether through individual or collective accountability for States, businesses, individuals and other responsible actors. 

The third element is reparation, which can include individual and collective measures and may take various forms, whether financial, material or symbolic. Reparation, under international law, includes restitution, such as the return of lands, resources and livelihoods to victims and affected communities; compensation for economically assessable damage; rehabilitation including medical, mental health and psychological support, as well as legal and social services; and satisfaction covering a broad range of measures, including symbolic acts, such as acknowledgement, apologies, commemorations and tributes to the victims and the acceptance of responsibility for environmental harm.

The fourth element of transitional justice is guarantee of non-recurrence. This is inherently forward-looking, and aims to prevent further human rights violations. Institutional, legislative and policy reforms, as well as reforms in education and culture, are imperative to address the underlying causes of environmental crises and related human rights violations and abuses. 


Indeed, while reparations for past harms are fundamental to accountability, we must also look forward.

That means designing effective measures to prevent future violations.

A human rights economy seeks to dismantle the root causes and structural barriers to equality, justice, and sustainability.

It ensures that business models and economic policies are guided by human rights and place people and planet at their core.

And it advances an equitable distribution of resources that reduces inequalities within and between countries.

I cannot emphasize enough the need for all States to live up to their global climate finance commitments, including for climate change mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage.

And they must go beyond them.

To do this, we must transform our economies and societies.

As a starting point my Office’s recent report on climate change and the right to food, highlight how economic policies, including financial assistance, debt servicing, and tax structures, should be transformed to ensure polluters pay for the environmental harms they cause. The UN Secretary-General is also delivering an important new report of human rights and loss and damage from climate change. We need to continue to push the envelope of this debate.

Under human rights law, those responsible for the climate crisis are legally obligated to take the necessary measures to stop, minimize and remedy its human rights impacts. The science has long been clear, and that has legal consequences for policy makers and political leaders.


Our discussions here and across other relevant fora are crucial to effect the change we all need.

I urge that all these efforts are strongly guided by the first-hand knowledge of victims and impacted communities.

Experiences and grievances of the people most affected by the climate crisis breathe life into legal frameworks.

Their reality exposes the wrongs that must be made right and how we can do better.

People matter. Their stories and ideas matter. The cases and solutions they bring matter.

And facts and knowledge matter.

All people have the right to access information and the right to benefit from science and its applications.

We cannot protect the environment without effective measures to ensure those who experience firsthand the worst impacts of its harm have access to information, justice and effective remedy – and perhaps most importantly, a place for their stories and demands to be heard and acted upon.

Thank you.