A healthy environment: what is this universal right? | Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Skip to content Skip to navigation
28 July 2023

The triple crisis facing the world highlights the importance of guaranteeing the right of all people to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are among the greatest threats to humanity today, seriously affecting the exercise and enjoyment of human rights. It’s enough to mention just a few examples:

  • Air pollution is one of the main environmental threats to health, causing seven million premature deaths each year.
  • In 2021, more than 38 million people were displaced from their homes due to climate-related disasters.


These and other impacts disproportionately affect individuals, groups and communities who are already in a situation of vulnerability.

For women, for example, environmental degradation means the reinforcement of pre-existing inequalities and situations of discrimination in matters such as access to and tenure of land and natural resources. Children, for their part, suffer more intense impacts due to their less developed physiology and immune systems. And for indigenous and traditional peoples, the defense of their territories and livelihoods in the face of environmental damage represents serious threats, even to their lives.

But what is the right to a healthy environment?


Components of the right to a healthy environment

The right to a healthy environment is increasingly included in constitutions, laws and regional justice systems. Although the definitions vary, the essence is the same. The general understanding is that to make it a reality requires two basic types of elements:

Substantive elements

  • Clean air.
  • A safe and stable climate.
  • Access to clean water and adequate sanitation.
  • Healthy and sustainably produced food.
  • Non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play.
  • Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

Procedural elements

  • Access to information.

  • Public participation in decision-making.
  • Access to justice and effective remedy.


The realization of this right also requires international cooperation, solidarity and equity in environmental actions (including the mobilization of resources), as well as the recognition of extraterritorial jurisdiction in damages to human rights caused by environmental degradation.


Dimensions and qualities

The right to a healthy environment has both a collective and an individual dimension. Under the former, it constitutes a universal interest owed to both present and future generations.

The individual dimension implies that violating this right can have direct and indirect repercussions on individuals due to its indivisible and interdependent relationship with other rights, such as the right to health, personal integrity or life, among others.

As the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded, given that environmental degradation can cause irreparable harm to people, a healthy environment "is a fundamental right for the existence of humanity.”

It is also an autonomous right that protects the components of the environment (forests, rivers, seas and others) as legal interests in themselves, even in the absence of certainty or evidence of risk to people.

The autonomous nature of this right and its interconnection with other rights entails a series of obligations for the States, which include to:

  • Prevent significant environmental damage; which implies regulating, supervising and overseeing activities that may generate risk or cause damage to the environment.

  • Carry out environmental impact studies, establish contingency plans and mitigate damages.
  • Act in accordance with the precautionary principle in the face of possible serious or irreversible damage to the environment, affecting the rights to life and personal integrity, even in the absence of scientific certainty.
  • Cooperate with other States in good faith for protection against significant environmental damage.
  • Guarantee access to information on possible environmental impacts.
  • Guarantee the right to public participation in scenarios that may affect the environment and guarantee access to justice.


Given the urgent need for new and better ways to protect the environment, the United Nations’ recognition of a healthy environment as a universal human right on July 28, 2022 marked a historic step forward in the long and complex process of guaranteeing this right in practice, which has been part of AIDA's history since its inception.

At AIDA, we’ve long worked to highlight the link between a healthy environment and other human rights. And we’re committed to fulfilling our mission: to strengthen the capacity of the people in Latin America to guarantee their individual and collective right to a healthy environment.


About the Author

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Liliana Ávila

Liliana A. Ávila is the Director of AIDA's Human Rights and Environment Program. A Colombian, she works from the Bogotá office. Liliana is an attorney from the Universidad Externado de Colombia, a specialist in constitutional law, and holds a Masters in Legal Argumentation from the University of Alicante in Spain. She has experience in international human rights law and international systems for the protection of human rights. She's a professor of international law at the Universidad Externado and has worked as a legal advisor on human rights, international humanitarian law, and public health.  

Latin America

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