Countries have a legal obligation to ensure clean air, says UN human rights representative

by BreatheLife campaign - 6 March, 2019
UN human rights body's Special Rapporteur identified seven key steps that each State must take to ensure clean air and fulfil the right to a healthy environment

Countries were reminded yesterday of their legal obligation to ensure citizens have a healthy environment when UN human rights representative David Boyd presented his report at the 40th meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment remarked in his report on the “complete absence or weakness of national air quality standards in many States”, which indicated “a widespread failure to fulfil this fundamental human rights obligation, with devastating impacts” on child health globally.

He was referring to the findings of a 2017 review indicating that 80 countries did not have any air quality standards or guidelines at all, and that few had incorporated World Health Organization guidelines into their air quality standards and not one had adopted all of these guidelines.

Clean air as a human right is not a new issue or concept within international discussions– the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told last year’s World Health Organization’s First Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, “there can be no doubt that all human beings are entitled to breathe clean air”.

“The failure to respect, protect and fulfil the right to breathe clean air is inflicting a terrible toll on people all across the world. The statistics presented in the present report depict a public health catastrophe, yet the numbers fail to capture the magnitude of human suffering involved. Each premature death, every illness and every disability afflicts an individual with hopes, dreams and loved ones. Air pollution is a preventable problem. The solutions − laws, standards, policies, programmes, investments and technologies − are known. Implementing these solutions will of course entail large investments, but the benefits of fulfilling the right to breathe clean air for all of humanity are incalculable.”
David Boyd

But the Special Rapporteur’s report reflects a growing global understanding of the devastating health impacts of air pollution, drawing together its established links with a wide range of human diseases and impairments, a sense of the magnitude of the problem, its cross-sectorial nature, the availability of viable solutions and the human health and economic cases for action for clean air.

He brought the Council’s attention to the more than 6 billion people– one-third of them children– who regularly inhale air so polluted it puts their life, health and wellbeing at risk, calling it “a silent, sometimes invisible, prolific killer”, responsible for the premature death of 7 million people each year, including 600,000 children.

“Yet, this pandemic receives inadequate attention as these deaths are not as dramatic as those caused by other disasters or epidemics,” he told the Council. “Every hour, 800 people are dying, many after years of suffering, from cancer, respiratory illnesses or heart disease directly caused by breathing polluted air.”

“People cannot avoid inhaling whatever contaminants are present in the air inside their homes or in their communities,” he said.

Boyd said that failing to ensure clean air constituted a violation of their fundamental right to a healthy environment, a right that at least 155 countries are legally obligated– through treaties, constitutions, and legislation– to respect, protect, and fulfil the right.

However, a recent UN Environment report that found that, despite a dramatic growth in laws and agencies put in place since the 1970s to protect the environment, a widespread lack of enforcement has meant an inadequate response to reducing pollution, mitigating climate change and preventing widespread species and habitat loss.

Boyd recommended that the General Assembly– which has adopted many resolutions on the right to clean water– adopt a resolution on the right to clean air, which he believes could help spur and guide action.

“Surely if there is a human right to clean water, there must be a human right to clean air. Both are essential to life, health, dignity and well-being,” his report stated.

He identified seven key steps that each country must take to ensure clean air and fulfil the right to a healthy environment:

  • Monitor air quality and impacts on human health;
  • Assess sources of air pollution;
  • Make information publicly available, including public health advisories;
  • Establish air quality legislation, regulations, standards and policies;
  • Develop air quality action plans at the local, national and, if necessary, regional levels;
  • Implement the air quality action plan and enforce the standards; and
  • Evaluate progress and, if necessary, strengthen the plan to ensure that the standards are met.

Read the press release from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Air pollution: The silent killer that claims 7 million lives each year

This article originally appeared on the BreatheLife website.


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