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.
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 European 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.
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.
Most national legal systems have already recognized that effective enjoyment of human rights requires the protection of the right to a healthy environment. Following the mobilization of more than 1000 civil society organizations 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 recognize 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 recognizing the right and committing to its effective protection through the drafting of a dedicated protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Establishing the legal protection of an autonomous right to a healthy environment by the European Court of Human Rights through a protocol will help catalyze 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.
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?