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Human Rights and Climate Change


Aerial view of a village drowning in the water floods caused by tropical storm Hanna, Haiti, 03 September 2008 © UN Photo/Marco DorminoIn its 5th Assessment Report (2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unequivocally confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report identified the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases as some of the adverse impacts of climate change. These phenomena directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people throughout the world, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development.

The negative impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by persons and communities already in disadvantageous situations owing to geography, poverty, gender, age, disability, cultural or ethnic background, among others, that have historically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, persons, communities and even entire States that occupy and rely upon low-lying coastal lands, tundra and Arctic ice, arid lands, and other delicate ecosystems and at risk territories for their housing and subsistence face the greatest threats from climate change.

The negative impacts caused by climate change are global, contemporaneous and subject to increase exponentially according to the degree of climate change that ultimately takes place. Climate change, therefore, requires a global rights-based response. The Human Rights Council (HRC), its special procedures mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have sought to bring renewed attention to human rights and climate change through a series of resolutions, reports, and activities on the subject, and by advocating for a human rights based approach to climate change.

Advocating a Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change

The HRC has highlighted the importance of addressing human rights in the context of on-going discussions related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Council has repeatedly made available the results of its debates, studies and activities to the sessions of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC. The outcome document of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development “The Future We Want” reaffirms the importance of human rights for achieving sustainable development.

Prior to this Conference, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized the responsibilities that all States have to ensure full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy, on the one hand, and their human rights obligations on the other, in an open letter to all Permanent Missions in New York and in Geneva. The Office also submitted key messages for the Conference. The negotiation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provided further opportunities to advocate integration of human rights within the framework of international efforts to promote sustainable development; however, the most critical negotiation, to date, on the subject of climate change, that of a legally binding agreement to limit climate change, is that of COP21 of the UNFCCC (December 2015).

With an eye toward this discussion, OHCHR and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice co-hosted a Climate Justice Dialogue in Geneva on 9 February 2015. The dialogue brought together representatives of delegates to the UNFCCC and the HRC, experts, and key civil society actors to discuss human rights and climate change. One outcome of this meeting was the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action, a voluntary initiative led by Costa Rica and initially supported by 18 countries from diverse regions. In the pledge, which is still open, countries undertake to facilitate the sharing of best practices and knowledge between human rights and climate experts at a national level.

Outlining a Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change

As the HRC has stressed, it is critical to apply a human rights-based approach to guide global policies and measures designed to address climate change. The essential attributes to a human rights-based approach are the following:

  • As policies and programmes are formulated, the main objective should be to fulfil human rights.
  • The rights-holders and their entitlements must be identified as well as the corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations in order to find ways to strengthen the capacities of rights-holders to make their claims and of duty-bearers to meet their obligations.
  • Principles and standards derived from international human rights law – especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core universal human rights treaties, should guide all policies and programming in all phases of the process.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Declaration on the Right to Development, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Common Understanding of a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation and other instruments emphasize that human rights principles like universality and inalienability, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness, non-discrimination and equality, participation and inclusion, accountability, and the rule of law must guide development. They outline a conceptual framework for development that has international human rights standards at its centre and the ultimate objective of fulfilling all human rights for all. The rights-based approach analyses obligations, inequalities and vulnerabilities, and seeks to redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power. It anchors plans, policies and programmes in a system of rights, and corresponding obligations established by international law.

Human rights obligations apply to the goals and commitments of States in the area of climate change and require that climate actions should focus on protecting the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. Human rights principles articulated in the Declaration on the Right to Development and other instruments call for such climate action to be both individual and collective and for it to benefit the most vulnerable. The UNFCCC further elaborates upon the need for equitable climate action calling for States to address climate change in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in order to benefit present and future generations.

Existing State commitments require international cooperation, including financial, technological and capacity-building support, to realise low-carbon, climate-resilient, and sustainable development, while also rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Only by integrating human rights in climate actions and policies and empowering people to participate in policy formulation can States promote sustainability and ensure the accountability of all duty-bearers for their actions. This, in turn, will promote consistency, policy coherence and the enjoyment of all human rights. Such an approach should be part of any climate change adaptation or mitigation measures, such as the promotion of alternative energy sources, forest conservation or tree-planting projects, resettlement schemes and others. Affected individuals and communities must participate, without discrimination, in the design and implementation of these projects. States should cooperate to address the global effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights around the world in a manner that emphasizes climate justice and equity.

A human rights-based approach also calls for accountability and transparency. It is not only States that must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change but also businesses which have the responsibility to respect human rights and do no harm in the course of their activities. States should make their adaptation and mitigation plans publicly available, and be transparent in the manner in which such plans are developed and financed. Accurate and transparent measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and its impacts, including human rights impacts, will be essential for successful rights-based climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Because of the impacts of climate change on human rights, States must effectively address climate change in order to honour their commitment to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all. Since climate change mitigation and adaptation measures can have human rights impacts; all climate change-related actions must also respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights standards.

Human Rights Council Actions on Climate Change

HRC Resolutions on human rights and climate change

  • Resolution 7/23 (March 2008): The Council expressed concern that climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world” and requested the OHCHR to prepare a study on the relationship between climate change and human rights.
  • Resolution 10/4 (March 2009): The Council noted that “climate change-related impacts have a range of implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights …” and that such effects “will be felt most acutely by those segments of the population who are already in a vulnerable situation ….”
  • Resolution 18/22 (September 2011): The Council affirmed that human rights obligations, standards, and principles have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policy-making in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy, and sustainable outcomes.
  • Resolution 26/27 (July 2014): The Council emphasized the need for all States to enhance international dialogue and cooperation to address the adverse impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights including the right to development. It called for dialogue, capacity-building, mobilization of financial resources, technology transfer, and other forms of cooperation to facilitate climate change adaptation and mitigation, in order to meet the special needs and circumstances of developing countries.
  • Resolution 29/15 (July 2015): The Council emphasized the urgent importance of continuing to address the adverse consequences of climate change for all and called for a panel discussion and analytical study on the impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of the right to health.
  • The Council has also addressed the issue of the impact of climate change in the framework of its work on human rights and the environment, particularly resolutions 16/11 (2011), 19/10 (2012), 25/21 (2014) and 28/11 (2015).


Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

The special procedures mechanisms of the Human Rights Council have regularly addressed the human rights impacts of climate change. The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has been particularly engaged and issued a Climate Change mapping report of statements made by human rights mechanisms regarding human rights that are threatened by climate change, and human rights obligations related to climate change.

There have also been several joint advocacy efforts by special procedures mechanisms related to climate change. These include:

  • An Open Letter dated 17 October 2014 to State Parties to the UNFCCC from 28 Special Procedures mandates that urges the UNFCCC "to adopt urgent and ambitious mitigation and adaptation measures to prevent further harm" and to include in the 2015 climate agreement a commitment that "the Parties shall, in all climate change related actions, respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights for all, and to launch a work program to ensure that human rights are integrated into all aspects of climate actions." The Open Letter is available in English and French.
  • A joint statement drawing attention to the grave harm even a two degree Celsius increase in average global temperature would cause to the enjoyment of human rights issued on the occasion of World Environment Day 2015. The Special Rapporteurs urged climate negotiators to reach an agreement that reflects the obligations human rights law places on States to protect and promote human rights.
  • A report prepared by several Special Rapporteurs for the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of twenty countries that are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. On behalf of the Forum, the Philippines, the current chair, submitted the report, entitled “The Effects of Climate Change on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights,” on 1 May 2015 to the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC. The Forum urged the COP to adopt a more ambitious target in the climate agreement currently under negotiation in order to avoid the devastating effects of a rapidly warming planet on the basic rights of all persons.