Climate change is, without a doubt, one of the most significant human rights challenges of our time.
This is the message members of civil society are sending loud and clear at the Bonn SB42 United Nations climate conference. A climate deal in Paris cannot be effective unless it includes language on human rights in the agreement text.
In Geneva, language on human rights made its way into the negotiating text for the first time. It was the result of a long fought for push from AILAC countries, particularly Costa Rica, to acknowledge the intersectionality of climate justice. A Paris agreement will be about more than greenhouse gas emissions. It will be about the right to health, education, water and water. It will be about indigenous and female rights.
Hindou Oumar Ibrahim, from the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, hit all nails on their heads when talking about how climate change affects core human rights. She addressed access to education due to climate-caused forced and frequent migration inhibiting the ability to attend school, as well as the right to access clean water, which is also threatened due to increased droughts and extreme weather events. “The rights of our own freedom as indigenous women are also affected by climate change,” she stated.
As John Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights, stated, “Even a two degree Celsius rise in climate change would have a huge impact on human rights.”
Knox describes why fundamental rights are paramount to discussions on climate change: they highlight what is truly at stake without an equitable, ambitious, binding agreement. They also, indeed, provide guidance on what such an agreement would look like, and also creates a space within negotiations where the negative impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities can be more openly addressed.
“Who are you trying to protect, who is the most vulnerable? Who is responsible for breaching these rights?” asked Friends of the Earth’s Gita Parihar.
How would incorporating human rights change how countries address or perceive climate change?
In fact, nations arguably have a responsibility to address climate change under human rights law. States are required to publicize environmental information and act swiftly to rectify breaches of human rights due to environmental destruction. Moreover, countries must take human rights into account when planning their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), assuring that any mechanisms they are hoping to use to reduce their emissions do not impact any of these rights.
In June 2014, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution on climate change, affirming that “the adverse effects of climate change… will be felt most acutely by individuals and communities around the world that are already in vulnerable situations owing to geography, poverty, gender, age, indigenous or minority status or disability.”
Knox reiterated that rights must be a strong part of a text in Paris. “You don’t check human rights at the door no matter what room you walk into, whether it’s a room in Bonn or in Paris,” he said.