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The right to a healthy environment: PACE proposes draft of a new protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) today called for an ambitious new legal framework, both at national and European level, to anchor “the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and presented a draft of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which would make such a right enforceable in law in all countries which ratified it.

In a resolution and recommendation based on a report by Simon Moutquin (Belgium SOC), the Assembly said such a legal text would finally give the European Court of Human Rights “a non-disputable base for rulings concerning human rights violations arising from environment-related adverse impacts on human health, dignity and life”. The Assembly pointed out that around half the world’s countries have recognised such a “right to a healthy environment” in their constitutions, including 32 Council of Europe member States. Only Europe does not have a regional agreement or arrangement recognising such a right, it added.

The Assembly’s draft will now be considered by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers (CM), which has the final say on whether to draft a new protocol to the Convention. It took no action on a similar request from the Assembly in 2009.

The parliamentarians also recommended that the CM draw up an additional protocol to the European Social Charter on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Furthermore, the preparation of a feasibility study for a “5P” (preventing, prosecuting, protecting, policies, parliaments) convention on environmental threats and technological hazards threatening human health, dignity and life should be launched, they said, and Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)3 on human rights and business revised with a view to strengthening corporate environmental responsibility.

In a second resolution, based on a report prepared by George Papandreou (Greece, SOC), the Assembly said that, to respond to the urgency of the climate crisis, governments need to combine “a clear political engagement and top-down leadership” that allows for meaningful contributions from citizens.

The adopted text stresses that citizens' assemblies represent a way to “tap into collective wisdom, restore trust in politics and allow citizens to reclaim the public space which has been taken over by social media”, while informing the public authorities about their preferences, which remains essential in a participatory democracy. To be credible, these citizens' assemblies should base their work on evidence, perspectives, and different forms of knowledge, without being dominated by power, money or partisan logics, the parliamentarians stressed.

Adopting a third resolution, based on a report by Ziya Altunyaldiz (Turkey, NR), the Assembly proposed reinforcing civil and criminal liability for “acts that might have an impact on climate change or cause severe environmental damage”, given the climate crisis and the importance of holding private and public actors liable for their contributions to climate change.

“It is important to pursue a unified criminal policy to protect the environment and to adopt common definitions of environmental crimes and sanctions related thereto,” the parliamentarians said, and called on member States to severely punish the most serious environmental crimes and to introduce the crime of ecocide in their criminal legislation – while recognising the principle of universal jurisdiction in this context. Council of Europe Conventions Nos. 172 and 150 shall be revised or replaced by new instruments better adapted to the current challenges.

A fourth resolution, based on a report by Edite Estrela (Portugal, SOC), called on the Council of Europe to help develop “climate resilience” to deal with global warming by promoting the rule of law – meaning the supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, the separation of powers, participation in decision-making, and transparency.

Stressing the importance of the role of parliaments, the Assembly decided to establish a parliamentary network under its auspices, whose task would be to follow action by national authorities to meet the commitments made in response to the climate crisis, and to foster regular opportunities for parliamentarians in Europe and on other continents to pool their experience.