Right to a Healthy Environment

Human rights and a healthy environment are interdependent.

The right to a healthy environment contains different elements:

  • Substantive rights: clean air, a safe climate, access to safe water and sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • Procedural rights: access to environmental information, participation in decision-making relating to the environment, and access to justice.

Although some of these rights come from existing international human rights law, there has been increasing momentum to have the right to a healthy environment recognised as a standalone right.

The Commission has worked internationally to promote support for the right to a healthy environment, including through the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI), as well as domestically through Scotland's National Taskforce on Human Rights Leadership.

A healthy environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of many human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and development. At the same time, the exercise of other freedoms, including the rights to information, participation and remedy, is vital to the protection of the environment.


John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment (2018)

Recent Developments

In October 2021, a landmark resolution was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council, recognising the universal human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

This followed longstanding calls for recognition of a right to a healthy environment by hundreds of international civil society organisations, social movements, local communities and Indigenous Peoples.

A resolution was also adopted on the creation of a Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change.

Many countries and regions already recognise the right to a healthy environment expressly in their constitutions, national and/or regional law.

Scotland will incorporate the right into Scots law when the UNCRC Bill is given Royal Assent.

The right to a healthy environment will also be included in a new human rights bill, which the Scottish Government will consult on as part of its Programme for Government 2021-22.


Climate Change Conference: COP26

Glasgow hosted the UN Climate Change Conference on 1-12 November 2021 (COP26). The summit brought together parties to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

The Commission worked in partnership with the University of Stirling, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) to host a 3-day Global Symposium on the sidelines of COP26 which focused on the role of National Human Rights Institutions in bridging the accountability gap in the climate emergency.

A Climate Change and Human Rights Monitoring Tool, developed by the German NHRI was launched at this Symposium.

Following the Symposium, the Commission joined with more than 100 of its GANHRI allies to call on governments to take rights based action on climate change.  Read the open letter which calls on states to take six critical actions to strengthen climate actions in line with their human rights obligations

The Commission is also part of GANHRI’s Caucus to coordinate NHRI global action on human rights and climate change.


The role of rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in context of climate change

The right to freedom of assembly and association, which is protected by law in Scotland, guarantees that people can join with others to collectively express, promote, pursue and defend their interests, including opinions on the environment and climate change.

Activity engaging the rights of assembly and association has been critical in raising awareness and understanding and garnering widespread support for the transformation that is required to reduce our negative impact on the environment.

In particular it has drawn attention to the impact climate change is already having in other countries, where people are already losing their lives and livelihoods. This is all the more important in Scotland, as a country that has contributed and continues to contribute disproportionately to environmental destruction and climate change, along with other more wealthy countries, but where the worst effects of climate change are not yet being felt.

Scotland faces some challenges in respecting, protecting and fulfilling the rights to peaceful assembly and association rights of those seeking to advance climate justice. We are currently working to raise awareness of these issues.

Read our full submission on the role of rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in climate justice.

Climate Justice

The climate crisis threatens all substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment. Climate justice recognizes and makes explicit the human cost of climate change.

The impacts on the natural world as a result of climate change – loss of species, loss of habitats, bleached coral reefs, shrinking polar ice and more –also has big impacts on people. These include access to water and sanitation, housing and homelessness and loss of livelihoods. 

These impacts are not being, and will not be felt equally. Climate justice involves acknowledging that richer countries have contributed disproportionately to human-caused climate change, that it is already resulting in widespread loss of life, livelihoods and homes in poorer countries, and recognising the duty on those richer countries to stop contributing to climate change and to support and assist poorer countries and peoples experiencing those negative impacts.

Climate justice requires a just transition, ensuring that the steps taken to address climate change are taken in a fair way, avoiding negative impacts on human rights, for example by transitioning people to green jobs rather than leaving them unemployed when we move away from oil and gas. 


The Commission has worked with the Scottish Government, Parliament and civil society for a number of years to encourage the development of a human rights based approach to securing climate justice.

The Commission made a submission to the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Bill consultation in 2017 and engaged with the Bill Team and Policy Unit thereafter to advance the content of the Bill.

The Commission also supported the drafting of the St Julian’s Declaration on Climate Justice in 2015, which called for a global response to dealing with the consequences of climate change by ensuring recognition of human rights in the climate agreement. Read more here.

Talks and documents on climate justice

2014 speech by the Commission giving an overview of our work on climate justice 

Read Mary Robinson's 2011 Magnusson lecture: "Climate Justice - Challenges and Opportunities" (Mary Robinson was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 1997-2002).

Read the report of the Working Group on Climate Change and Human Rights to the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, 2012.

Read Professor Alan Miller's 2013 lecture: "From Climate Change to Climate Justice" (Prof Miller was the Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission 2009-15).

Land Reform

Land reform in Scotland is an important human rights issue. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 was passed in April 2016.  

Why is land ownership a human rights issue?

Land ownership and access to land in Scotland is an emotive issue. During 2014 and 2015, the Commission engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, to encourage everyone involved to recognise that human rights are engaged in the debate.

We stressed that Scottish Ministers are empowered by the Scotland Act 1998 to observe and implement international human rights obligations. These include but go beyond the European Convention on Human Rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights places a duty on Ministers to use the maximum available resources to ensure the progressive realisation of rights like the right to housing, food and employment.

Viewed through this broader human rights lens, land is seen as a national asset, with key questions arising of how to strike the most appropriate balance between the legitimate rights of landowners and the wider public interest.

What has the Commission done?

In January 2021, the Commission published its Submission to the Scottish Government's Consultation on on Scotland’s Third Land Use Strategy 2021-2026

In 2014 and 2015 the Commission gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government on land reform.

We wrote about human rights and land reform in the Herald in April 2015.