UPDATED: ‘Come to your senses’: UK accused of hypocrisy over environmental rights stance

The government is opposed to a proposed UN resolution recognising access to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a global human right, contradicting UK claims to international climate leadership, according to NGOs.

The proposal is currently before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, a 47-member body based in Geneva that the UK helped to found, and to which it was elected for a three-year term a year ago. The council’s current session ends tomorrow.

Despite resistence from the UK and the US, the resolution is expected to be passed, having gained support from a majority of members, including Costa Rica, the Maldives and Switzerland, according to Reuters.

A statement by Friends of the Earth’s joint chief executives Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles, written alongside Yasmin Ahmed, the director of Human Rights Watch, said that the UK’s stance conflicts with the aims the government has espoused ahead of COP26.

“The UK’s pledge to be a climate and environment leader is again being contradicted by its own actions. Despite lofty promises, the UK is opposing a UN resolution that recognizes the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” they wrote.

“Many are asking how the president of COP 26, the country that is telling the world to ‘grow up’ and urgently deal with the destruction of the natural environment, is standing in the way of such a critical development. Let’s hope the UK comes to its senses and votes to protect against global environmental destruction,” the three added.

The quote was a reference to the prime minister’s speech to the UN General Assembly, which focused on the looming climate talks in Glasgow.

“My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end. We are approaching that critical turning point – in less than two months – when we must show that we are capable of learning, and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet but ourselves. It is time for humanity to grow up,” he told other world leaders.

“While Johnson is certainly right, the UK looks to be the delinquent in the room by standing in the way of an important initiative at the United Nations that is designed to protect against global environmental destruction,” the trio replied. They consider that the resolution would help prevent the destruction that Johnson described.

Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s director of policy and government affairs, agreed: “The prime minister Boris Johnson has recognised that the dramatic impact of climate change is devastating the world and it’s imperative that action is taken. Millions of people are experiencing hunger and displacement because of climate change and environmental degradation, so we must do everything we can to protect human life and dignity which depends on a healthy environment. 

“This is not the time for the UK to be dragging their feet, just as they are preparing to host COP26. They must be consistent and support the recognition of the right to a healthy environment, at the UN and at a national level,” he told ENDS.

A spokesperson from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office confirmed that there were sensitivities about the proposal: “Whilst we have legal concerns about recognising a right to a safe and healthy environment in this way, we continue to engage constructively with the main authors of this resolution at the Human Rights Council.”

The position is a clear recognition that the resolution could encourage embarrassing legal challenges where the right is breached. There already appears to be a growing intersection of environmental law and human rights, most recently in the case of five-year-old Mathew Richards, exposed to a stinking landfill in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Earlier this year, a coroner declared that breathing dirty air made a material contribution to the 2013 death of 9-year old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, arguably breaching her right to life, enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

His ruling was the first time that a direct link between an individual death and air pollution has ever been made, even though tens of thousands of people are thought to be killed by inhaling particulates and nitrogen dioxide every year.

UPDATE: Despite its initial opposition, the UK eventually backed the measure when it was put to a vote on Friday. The resolution was passed by a vote of 43 in favour, none opposed and with four abstentions, from Russia, India, Japan and China.