Is there a human right to a healthy environment?

The latest video in Castan Centre’s Have You Got That Right? series considers the right to a healthy environment. Monash University’s Associate Professor Adam McBeth says while the UN does not yet explicitly recognise it, “a new right to a healthy planet may continue to be fleshed out, emerging from our existing rights” to health, food, water, and the like. South Africa’s constitutional bill of rights includes section 24, which protects human rights “to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being” and “to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations”. In a decision upholding the government’s right to prevent the construction of a new petrol station, Claasen J of the South African High Court (roughtly equivalent to an Australian State Supreme Court) ruled that s 24 meant “[p]ure economic principles will no longer determine in an unbridled fashion whether a development is acceptable. Development, which may be regarded as economically and financially sound, will in future be balanced by its environmental impact…” In 2014, in a report considering the right to a healthy environment around the world, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment observed that “over 90 national constitutions recogniz[e] some form of the right”, including 30 African countries, but that “implementation was the major issue”.

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