The critical role of National Human Rights Institutions in times of climate crisis

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The critical role of National Human Rights Institutions in times of climate crisis

Author: Maria-Therese Gustafsson, May 2020

Assistant Professor in Political Science, Stockholm University

In recent years, there has been an increasing recognition of the importance of integrating a human rights perspective in the quest for a low-carbon and climate resilient future. At the same time as threats and killings of environmental defenders have increased dramatically, 150 countries, today, recognize the right to a healthy environment. In a recent report we have summarized the key messages from five webinars. The key insight is that the empowerment of National Human Rights Institutions is critical to counter the climate crisis. The webinar series report The Right to a Healthy Environment and the Role of National Human Rights Institutions was prepared by Maria-Therese Gustafsson and Claudia Ituarte-Lima. 

A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation, housing as well as the rights of indigenous peoples, women and children. At the same time, protecting human rights helps to protect the environment. When people are able to learn about, and participate in, the decisions that affect them, they can help to ensure that those decisions respect their need for a sustainable environment. 

In recent years, the recognition of the link between human rights and the environment has greatly increased. The number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on this relationship has grown rapidly. More than 150 out of 193 States recognize the right to a healthy environment in their national and/or regional legal frameworks. In addition, there is a growing global concern over the threats, intimidation, attacks against and killings of environmental defenders, as well as a deeper appreciation of their vital role in promoting a healthy environment as recognized by the UN Human Rights Council. 

Despite growing awareness, skills and tools to address these issues in an integrated manner are insufficient to address the global environmental crises. To bridge this gap the Environmental Governance Program in collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, the UN Environment Programme, and UNDP's Learning for Nature programme organized a series of interactive webinars for National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). The webinars were held on 25-27 November 2019 and were conducted in English, Spanish and French and focused on Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America, Europe and Canada. Taken together, the events underscore the importance of the oversight role of NHRIs in implementing international laws and norms and protecting and promoting human rights related to the environment at the national level. 


Lisa Dellmuth, project leader

Maria-Therese Gustafsson

In cooperation with