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28 Jun 2024

ENNHRI repeats call for a binding Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights to recognise the right to a healthy environment

During this week’s 100th Council of Europe Steering Committee for Human Rights meeting, ENNHRI reiterated its call for Council of Europe Member States to adopt a binding instrument on the right to a healthy environment. An updated ENNHRI statement outlines why adopting an Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention) offers the strongest protection of this right. This would also strengthen the rights of all 675 million citizens living in Council of Europe Member States.

An Additional Protocol to the Convention – the best way to enforce the right to a healthy environment

To ensure the Council of Europe’s leading role in developing global human rights standards, its Member States should adopt a binding instrument recognising the right to a healthy environment. This would be in line with political commitments made in last year’s Reykjavik Declaration.

The instrument adopted should provide an effective and binding oversight mechanism, while ensuring meaningful access to justice for victims. A binding Protocol to the Convention offers the best way to provide these and, overall, the  legal protection of the right to a healthy environment.

An Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter and/or a standalone Convention on Human Rights and the Environment could also provide some protection of the right to a healthy environment. However, ENNHRI underlines that it only considers the standalone convention an option if an Additional Protocol to the Convention is not adopted.

The benefits and necessity of recognising a standalone right to a healthy environment

Climate change, biodiversity loss and rising pollution pose a significant threat to human rights for present and future generations. The standalone right to a healthy environment at the European level would enable domestic legal systems to respond effectively to this triple planetary crisis.  Additionally, in its ruling in the landmark case Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, the Court confirmed states’ duty to protect individuals from the serious and adverse effects of climate change on people’s lives, health, wellbeing, and quality of life under Article 8 of the Convention. It was the first Court’s case to underscore this for the context of climate change, but not the first case to say this in relation to other forms of environmental degradation. Still, in the KlimaSeniorinnen judgment, the Court did not recognise a new right to a healthy environment. This means the need for binding recognition of this right remains as acute as ever.

The binding instrument could address the high evidentiary requirements currently imposed on individuals to prove how environmental harm impacts their rights. It would also enable the Court or other binding oversight mechanisms to deter and sanction environmental damage, without necessarily binding it to rights guaranteed by the Convention, as was the case in KlimaSeniorinnen. Overall, it would provide a clear legal basis to enforce better protection for human rights and the environment. At the same time, codifying the right to a healthy environment would still allow decision-makers flexibility in designing environmental policies.

The right to a healthy environment is already recognised in 31 Council of Europe Member States. Introducing a binding instrument would strengthen the European legal framework and benefit all 675 million people living in the Council of Europe.

The view of ENNHRI’s representatives in negotiations on the binding standard

ENNHRI has been represented in negotiations on the binding standard by three different people: Hannah Cecilie Brænden, Norwegian National Human Rights Institution; Michel Tabbal, French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights; and Katalin Sulyok, Hungarian Ombudsman for Future Generations. They state that:

“The time has come for a Council of Europe legally binding instrument on the right to a healthy environment. National experiences show the huge benefits for all of such recognition and how it is enforceable without overburdening courts or restricting states’ policy discretion. Adopting a binding protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights is how we can best achieve this.”

More on ENNHRI’s work on human rights and climate change

Read ENNHRI’s updated statement calling for a Council of Europe binding instrument on the right to a healthy environment.

Learn more on ENNHRI’s work on human rights and climate change.

Watch a video on ENNHRI’s third-party interventions before the Court in landmark climate change cases.