Google Translate


A Toxics-Free Future


Webinar Summary: A Human Rights Approach to a Plastics Treaty

In the context of an international legally binding instrument on plastic (a Plastics Treaty) being developed by the international negotiating committee (INC), following a mandate by the United Nations Environmental assembly in resolution 5/14, there is a call from civil society, experts, and activists to ensure the future Treaty applies a human rights approach. 

Crucially, in July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) endorsed the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This recognition could be crucial in advancing a rights-based approach in environmental protection. However, the scope of human rights relevant to the Plastics Treaty goes beyond the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  

In February 2024, IPEN organized a webinar with leading experts and advocates to promote a better understanding of what it means to apply a human rights approach in the Plastics Treaty and what the obstacles might be.

The main panel of the webinar included: 

Professor David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment 

Ana Paula Souza, Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 

Sébastien Duyck, Senior Attorney; Campaign Manager Human Rights & Climate, Climate & Energy Program of the Center for International Environmental Law (IPEN) 

Vito A. Buonsante, Technical and policy advisor at IPEN, moderator 


The interventions of the panelists are summarized below  

Professor David R. Boyd  


Populations that are potentially vulnerable or marginalized are directly affected by all aspects of plastic pollution, from production to disposal. Plastic also has negative ecological effects – we've probably all seen the horrible photographs of whales and sea turtles trapped in plastic. Exposure is not only to the plastics but the myriad of toxic chemicals that are used in making plastic have impacts on our health.  

The United Nations has now recognized that each and every one of us has the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. This is a human right that is already recognized in the law in more than 160 countries around the world and their constitutions, their environmental legislation, or through the ratification regional treaties that include the right to a healthy environment. The right to a healthy environment can be a very powerful tool in addressing the problem of plastic pollution, because the right to a healthy environment has a combination of substantive elements and procedural elements and is also interpreted according to a set of guiding principles. 

Substantial protections include: safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments where we can live, work, study, and play, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and a safe climate. 

Procedural protections include: the right to information about plastic production, about plastic waste, and about the toxic additives being used in plastics. We have a right to that information – it cannot be considered confidential business information. Second, we have a right to participate in decisions that affect our environment. A rights-based approach to plastic ensures that we have the most inclusive public participation possible in the development of solutions. It ensures that we have the access to information we need to make good policy choices about how to prevent plastic pollution. Finally, a rights-based approach highlights the impacts on vulnerable and marginalized populations and ensures that those populations have a seat at the table and that their voices are heard. 

The additional good news is that the right to a healthy environment can be used to block unjust and unsustainable activities, and it can also be used by governments to defend policies that have been put in place to address plastic pollution. As an example, a court in Norway overturned a number of permits for offshore oil and gas exploration because the government had not adequately assessed the greenhouse gas emissions that would result. 

As we turn our attention to the negotiation of the new global Plastics Treaty, it's critically important that that Treaty specifically includes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but even more broadly, takes a human rights based approach. 

Ana Paula Souza, office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights  

The communities most impacted by plastic pollution often lack adequate access to health care, information, and opportunities to protect themselves from exposure to the impacts through the plastics life cycle. Despite the well-known impact of plastics on human rights, there is still a huge disconnect at environmental negotiations and approaches have been in silos (for example, WHO/health, FAO/food, HRC/human rights, ILO/labor rights, and others).  

All States already have obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. This extends to protecting people from foreseeable and preventable human rights harms caused by all forms of environmental degradation, including plastic pollution. Human rights standards and obligations already guarantee all people the rights to participation, access to information, and access to justice in environmental matters. Those rights are also reflected in the Rio Principles and in environmental sound governance treaties such as the Escazu Agreement and the Aarhus Convention. These rights carry obligations to States. Express references in a legally binding document create better conditions for action and accountability.  

A treaty anchored in human rights can provide the ambition required to combat plastic pollution:  

  • The inclusion of human rights in the new plastic treaty can empower all people with a critical tool to hold to account their governments, big polluters, and all those responsible for environmental harm.

  • The Plastics Treaty should go beyond the Paris Agreement and set a new bar by including human rights firmly rooted in its obligations, as has been called for by several Member States, particularly when referring to just transition and (the right to) health. 

  • The Treaty can have binding obligations while recognizing different development stages and capabilities of its Parties. For example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, article 2, stipulates that each State Party undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights in the Convention (…). 

  • When it comes to access to justice, the Treaty should ensure measures to hold plastics and chemical producers accountable for the damage caused, support environmental remediation, and ensure access to effective remedy for those impacted, including cross-border cases. Unfortunately, the zero draft is silent on this aspect.  

  • The responsibilities of businesses that create massive volumes of plastic pollution and waste, including human rights due diligence, should be included in the Treaty.  

  • The new Treaty must protect the right to science, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their knowledge, practices, and innovations.  

  • The Treaty must make clear that a just transition applies to the entire life cycle of plastics and requires safeguarding the rights of workers, including in informal sectors, their communities, Indigenous Peoples, and people in vulnerable situations. This also means that business enterprises need to ensure that the progress and benefits they create during the transition are accessible to and shared with the people and communities on which they depend.  

  • Alternatives to plastics and non-plastics substitutes need to be assessed regarding their implications for human rights, including the right to a healthy environment and the right to health, to ensure that we are not creating another problem. Other proposed solutions, such as incineration, plastic-to-fuel, and bioplastics must be assessed regarding their implications for human rights and the environment.  

  • At the same time, recycling is often a pretense that perpetuates the transfer of hazardous substances to low-income countries and the continued exposure of marginalized communities. 

  • States have the duty to cooperate to ensure the realization of all human rights. This obligation extends to capacity-building, technical assistance, technology transfer, and resource mobilization to prevent human rights harms caused by plastic pollution. In line with States human rights obligations, the Treaty should effectively mobilize multiple sources of funding, in particular from those most responsible for the plastics crisis (advancing the polluter-pays principle) to those most affected by the crisis. 

Further resources: 

A/76/207: The stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights 

A/HRC/48/61: Right to science in the context of toxic substances 

Sébastien Duyck, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Senior Attorney, Campaign Manager Human Rights & Climate, Climate & Energy Program  

It is alarming that the current revised draft of the Plastics Treaty has very limited references to human rights and there are more references to proprietary rights than to human rights. It's important for us to let that sink in and realize whose interest such a Treaty would serve. 

Some insights and experiences from advocating for human rights in the context of a climate negotiation phase in the lead up to the Paris Conference in 2015 and some of the lessons learned may be useful for the current negotiations: 

  • The Paris Agreement is probably not a great success story when it comes to protecting human rights. Unfortunately, climate related harms are accelerating because of the shortcomings of the Paris Agreement, so the Paris Agreement cannot be taken as an example of a case study of what works internationally 

  • A stronger reference to human rights should be expected in the Plastics Treaty. The main message is that no international environmental agreements adopted in 2024-2025 can have a lighter reference to human rights than the Paris Agreement. 

  • Before the Paris Agreement, we had references to human rights in the climate negotiations, but only two that were adopted in 2010, primarily thanks to the leadership of Mexico. 

  • Before Paris, we didn't have a global recognition of the right to a healthy environment, but when we speak about human rights in the context of these agreements, we really mean a much broader set of rights than just the right to health and a healthy environment.  

  • The right to a healthy environment is only one of many rights that are relevant in these discussions and that's the reason why the references that we see currently in the draft Plastics Treaty, that only acknowledges the recognition of the right to a healthy environment, is not fit for what we need to see reflected in the Treaty. 

  • The objective for civil society engaging on human rights in the context of Paris seeks an overarching reference to human rights that will be applicable to all issues, from mitigation to adaptation, prioritizing the protection of the rights of the most vulnerable in the context of resilience to loss and damage.  

  • In the context of climate finance and technological human rights approaches, we should ensure that climate finance benefits local communities and that no projects are harmful to communities.  

  • Therefore, it is important that there is a cross cutting reference to human rights. And not limited to one aspect only. Trying to reduce the relevance of human rights only to one dimension is actually extremely harmful, and this is something that we also face in the climate negotiation with this idea of reducing the scope of human rights references primarily to adaptation. 

  • It is true that not all States recognize the same scope of human rights obligations (for example, the US has not ratified many of the international human rights instruments) and the Plastics Treaty negotiations are not where these larger conversations should happen. Every state, however, has ratified a large number of treaties and it is sufficient to reference those rights that need to be protected, promoted, and considered in the context of climate negotiations. 

  • It’s important to present compelling arguments on why human rights are important and move beyond the legal slogan of bringing human rights in a treaty by exemplifying who will benefit from those approaches. 

  • Climate decision makers, who see human rights outside the scope of their mandates, are actually welcoming arguments when we can demonstrate that human rights based climate action is in their own interest because it delivers better climate policies. So even for those who have a very narrow mindset or focus on effective climate policies, human rights are the way forward. 

Further resources:


Policy Area: