The connection between human rights and climate change was recognised for the first time in Human Rights Council resolution 7/23 in 2008 and again in HRC resolution 10/4 in 2009, which informed the discussions at COP16 in Cancun the following year. During this conference, the UNFCCC parties acknowledged human rights as an important aspect of climate decision-making (Decision 1/CP.16, para 8) but since then has been no framework for ensuring these rights are considered or complied with in actions relating to climate change.
HRC resolution 18/22 in 2011 affirmed that human rights standards and obligations have the potential to strengthen international and national policy making. We do not see this reflected in the draft text for Paris.
The term “human rights” is mentioned seven times in the draft text. More than a quantitative analysis, however, what is more important is to assess the qualitative impact of references to human rights in the text.
On first analysis of the text, “human rights” are referenced within certain options for clauses in the preamble, general objective and adaption sections. The reference in the general objective section is arguably the most important as it would apply to both mitigation and adaption, as well as other aspects such as finance and technology transfers. It is also important to note the difference between the human rights implications of climate change itself and implications concerning climate change response measures. The current draft text relates exclusively to the latter, unlike the earlier statements in the HRC resolutions. Perhaps an acknowledgement of the negative effects of climate change on human rights, as well as emphasising that responses must respect rights, would strengthen the text in terms of “climate justice”.
There is no list of specific human rights in the draft text or reference to existing obligations such as under the UN Declaration of Human Rights (where human rights are already defined). The absence of particular human rights from the text is not necessarily a weakness of the text. On the contrary it avoids potential conflict over which rights to list, and in what order, an exercise perhaps fundamentally at odds with the concept of human rights, which are all universal, indivisible and interdependent.
The more significant question is: how will protection of these rights be enforced? While the text does make some mention of human rights, there is no proposal of how to ensure compliance by States. The international human rights framework currently includes supervisory and reporting functions such as the Universal Periodic Review to reinforce compliance with treaties. These mechanisms already exist yet are absent from the text. We suggest incorporating references to such human rights reporting mechanisms to leverage these existing tools that are used by States. For example, requiring national reports to both the UNFCC and HRC to include explicit reference to the link between human rights and climate change. Currently, only 12 countries have made such a reference across these two national reports (as is detailed in this research by the Mary Robinson Foundation).
Eve Bain and Alanna Garland, with thanks to Sébastien Duyck for helpful comments and guidance.
Image by University of Essex