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King's Legal Clinic student research makes the case for environmental rights to be recognised as human rights

A pioneering project, based at King’s Legal Clinic, has produced research which supports amending the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to create a legal right to a safe, healthy, clean and sustainable environment.

A village located by a river which could potentially be affected by climate change
Riverside communities affected by climate change, similar to the one above, will benefit from the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, becoming an international legal norm.

The Environmental Rights Recognition Project (ERRP), a collaboration between King’s Legal Clinic and postgraduate students at NYU School of Law, was established to promote the recognition of the legal right to a healthy environment in the UK and across Europe.

The ERRP briefing paper, which is addressed to the UK and Irish governments, is in response to a resolution which the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) initially presented to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on 29 September 2021.

Sue Willman, Assistant Director and supervising solicitor at King’s Legal Clinic, co-founded the ERRP in September 2021 with Harry Balfour-Lynn, a master’s student at New York University. She emphasised how timely it is for the UK government to consider the issue.

The ERRP briefing paper outlines the many reasons why the UK Government should support PACE’s proposal for a new ECHR right to a healthy environment and emphasises the leadership role that the UK has previously played in international human rights and environmental law.

“The ERRP provides legal research to help move the right to a healthy environment up the political agenda in the UK and Ireland and inform the debate. The time is ripe for the UK to support this right at the Council of Ministers. The UN Human Rights Council recognised the right last year and proposed it to the UN General Assembly. The UK’s proposed Modern Bill of Rights also offers a golden opportunity to recognise the link between the environment and fundamental human rights which the climate crisis has brought so sharply into focus.”– Sue Willman, Assistant Director and supervising solicitor at King’s Legal Clinic.

The recommendations the ERRP make to the UK Government are:

  1. The Government should publicly announce their support for PACE’s proposal for a new ECHR right to a healthy environment
  2. The Government should engage with other Council of Europe’s Member State governments and encourage them to support PACE’s proposal
  3. The Government is currently considering reforms to the UK’s domestic human rights framework and has proposed a Modern Bill of Rights. Independently of PACE’s proposal, this presents an opportunity for the UK to modernise its approach to human rights by including recognition of a statutory right to a healthy environment alongside any other reforms.
  4. In order to effectively implement the right to a healthy environment in the UK, the Government should consider establishing a national task force which could assess compliance with the right to a healthy environment by reference to the right as established in upcoming human rights legislation
  5. The UK Government should propose to Parliament either that a new parliamentary committee be established, or that the remit of an existing committee such as the Environmental Audit Committee be expanded, to scrutinise legislation in order to ensure that it is compatible with the right to a healthy environment.

Professor Phillip Alston of NYU School of Law has written a foreword to both papers. He explained that as global warming, biodiversity loss and general environmental degradation continue to escalate, the time to act is now.

Professor Alston said: “This briefing paper provides a compelling and insightful overview of the arguments in favour of a legal right to healthy environment. This particular train is leaving the station and there are powerful reasons for the governments of countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland to get on board and shape developments. Whatever the response of the Council of Europe to the PACE proposal, the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment will become an international legal norm.”

King’s Human Rights and Environment Clinic student director Isabelle Standen was responsible for planning and overseeing the research: "We hope that with this briefing we can raise support amongst parliamentarians for the inclusion of the right in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the UK’s own rights regime. The implementation of this right would bring environmental considerations to the forefront, clarifying our existing environmental obligations and enabling stronger realisation of human rights.”

The ERRP is principally a collaboration between the King’s Legal Clinic and postgraduate students at New York University School of Law led by Sue Willman and Harry Balfour-Lynn with contributions from Mark Thornton, Raluca Sbîrnea, Katarina Sydow, Isabelle Standen, Sarina Yamahata, Asimina Bibe, Lavanya Nayar, Elsa Donnat, Hubert Sitnik, Emma Tricco and Pierre-Jean Clausse.

The UK paper is available here and the Ireland paper is available here

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers is made up of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the 46 Council of Europe Member States.

In this story

Sue Willman

Sue Willman

Assistant Director of King's Legal Clinic and Lecturer in Law (Education)