The UN General Assembly on 28th July, 2022 adopted a landmark resolution recognizing and making a declaration that the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right. This right is opportune at a time when globally, pollution kills 9 million people a year with Africa accounting for the largest percentage of this deaths. This is the first time this Right is being recognized by the UN General Assembly and it propounds the nature of other human rights and at the same time adopts its fair share of setbacks. Environmental rights are ingrained in environmental law and most states lack the ability and motivation to effectively implement environmental law policies in their jurisdictions owing to pressing priorities of development.
The reluctance for environmental rights in Africa’s Regional Blocs
In welcoming this universal right, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres pointed out that “Member States should now come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”. This collective fight action forms the backdrop of a robust regional integration system that counters the dangers of environmental degradation among countries. In Africa, in a wake of political headwinds, regional bodies struggle with implementing environmental rights. Let alone guaranteeing environmental rights, implementation of environmental law is always exercised with caution and at times ambiguously due to different state’s priorities.
The reluctance of Africa’s regional bodies to implement and enforce provisions relating to the right to a clean and healthy environment cuts across the edge of the continent. In the East African Community (EAC), the 2006 Protocol on Environment that was meant to give effect to environmental related rights remains ineffective and has not yet entered into force. In the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the 2014 Protocol on Environmental Management for Sustainable Development has only been ratified by three member states and has therefore not yet entered into force. Interestingly, the SADC environment protocol unlike the EAC one, does not refer to any environmental right in its text but makes a blanket inference to environmental protection and sustainable use of natural resources. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is also missing a position on environmental rights. This bloc does not have a protocol on environment unlike SADC and EAC, neither does it refer to any environmental rights in its Treaty or other Protocols.
From these blocs, the hesitance and unwillingness of African countries through their regional integration mechanisms to implement environmental law and recognize environmental rights is standard. Since land is an economic development asset and a tool for poverty alleviation, the hesitance by majority of these states reflects a presumable notion of non- interference with economic sustainability and poverty alleviation.
Unsustainable development and its environmental concerns
Majority of African countries justify their restraint of environmental rights in their jurisdictions on development and disregard that even poverty alleviation requires sustainable measures. Countries like Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo which are heavy in mineral resources and oil, have subsequently disregarded environmental concerns on projects in their countries in pursuit of economic development. Indeed, the enemy is poverty and as such, Africa’s development needs to be expedited. However, a country’s development pursuit is not on the right path if it is not sustainable enough. According to the UN, sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
On a Continental space, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) provides for economic development rights. Article 24 of the Banjul Charter provides for the Right to a satisfactory environment favorable for a people’s development. The nature of Article 24 was interpreted by the African Commission as the right to a healthy environment which imposes clear obligations upon a state to take reasonable and other measures to prevent pollution and ecological degradation while at the same time secure an ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources. This provision therefore forms an underpinning of sustainable development, a healthy environment in any economic development quest in Africa. There is a need to reflect the position adopted by the Commission across regional bloc treaties, protocols and other sources of regional law in bid to realize the UN General Assembly Resolution.
The UN General Assembly Resolution of 28th July is a win for the intrinsic value human beings attach to their natural habitat. The issue cannot be a one man’s conference because pollution and climate change is a cross-border issue. The resounding absence in provision and action of environmental rights protection across the African continent in their regional bodies will continue to sting while we erroneously focus on unsustainable development. Poverty must be fought in a manner that does not deplete and reduce the resources (including human resource) needed for future generations. Only then, there is sustainability that protects humanity.
Regional integration is a powerful tool and its success and benefits in other aspects such as community citizenship, Peace and security and Trade are already being felt across the continent. The UN in its resolution has already paved a way and these regional blocs in Africa should roll up their sleeves and take the bold action needed to steer humanity away from the path of self-destruction. We must not forget the reason why rights are ‘universal’, and as such, the African continent through its representatives in regional blocs must protect human life and its surrounding. Most importantly, we must also remember that Pan-Africanism lives with us and our common interest is to ensure the continent we all call home is safe for us and future generations.
 UN General Assembly Resolution A/76/L.75 https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3982508?ln=en
 Reuters, ‘Pollution killing 9 million people a year, Africa hardest hit – study’ https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/pollution-killing-9-million-people-year-africa-hardest-hit-study-2022-05-17/
 UNEP, Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report, 2019. https://www.unep.org/resources/assessment/environmental-rule-law-first-global-report
 EAC Protocol on Environment and Natural Resource Management, 2006 https://www.eac.int/environment/natural-resources-management/protocol-on-environment-and-natural-resource-management
 SADC protocol on Environmental Management for Sustainable Development, 2014 https://static.pmg.org.za/190305Annexure_1-Protocol_on_Environment_Management_for_Sustainable_D.pdf
 Amnesty International, ‘No clean up, no justice: Shell’s oil pollution in the Niger Delta’ https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/06/no-clean-up-no-justice-shell-oil-pollution-in-the-niger-delta/
 DRC Oil Exploration Raises Environmental Concerns, https://www.voanews.com/a/drc-oil-exploration-raises-environmental-concerns-/6688700.html
 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“Banjul Charter), 1982 Articles 20, 22
 Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) and Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) V Nigeria, 155/96 https://www.achpr.org/public/Document/file/English/achpr30_155_96_eng.pdf