According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of themselves and of their families.

Furthermore, article 12 of the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights states that ‘the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ Other international treaties which relate to the right to health are:

For this purpose, States must grant access to health care facilities and services, sanitation, adequate food, among others.  It also means that States are obliged to prevent serious mental and physical health harms.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explained:

‘The right to health contains both freedoms and entitlements. The freedoms include the right to control one’s health and body, including sexual and reproductive freedom, and the right to be free from interference, such as the right to be free from torture, non-consensual medical treatment and experimentation. By contrast, the entitlements include the right to a system of health protection which provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples´ Rights establishes in Article 16 the right to health and the European Social Charter states everyone has the right to benefit from any measures enabling him to enjoy the highest possible standard of health attainable. The right to health is also recognized in the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, and the Commonwealth of Independent States Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Right to health and the environment

The right to health and the right to a healthy environment are closely related.

The Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment clearly states human rights and environmental protection are interdependent. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, among many others.

In 2018 the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment states that ‘Climate change has many other harmful effects on human health, including increasing the frequency and severity of heatwaves, compounding the toxicity of fossil-fuel pollutants such as ozone and contributing to wildfires. Children are, again, more vulnerable to all of these effects.’

The Convention on the Rights of the Child ‘requires States parties to pursue full implementation of the right to health by appropriate measures that include the provision of nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.’

Good health depends extensively on environmental conditions. In order to guarantee the best attainable state of physical and mental health, governments must make every possible effort, within available resources, to protect the individuals from the harmful effects of environmental degradation, caused by the State or private entities.

Negative effects of the climate emergency can violate the right to health, not only through premature deaths, but also through increased incidences of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, malnutrition, stunting, wasting, allergies, injuries and mental illness.

Human rights mechanisms have recognized that environmental problems can lead to violations of the right to health. For example, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights regarding the African Charter on Human and Peoples´Rights , has affirmed that:

“reduced to their most basic level, the rights to health… and a healthy environment (general satisfactory environment favourable to their development) serve to prohibit governments from directly threatening the health and environment of their citizens. The State is under the obligation to respect and this entails largely non-interventionist conduct from the State for example … from carrying out, sponsoring or tolerating any practise, policy or legal measures violating the integrity of the individual.”

Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment; and sustainable environmental governance cannot exist without the establishment of and respect for human rights. This relationship is increasingly recognised, as the right to a healthy environment is enshrined in over 100 constitutions.