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2021 Human Rights and Climate Change Geneva Dialogues
High Level Session: Expectations for human rights-based climate action in 2021

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

24 March 2021

I welcome these interesting discussions, and thank you for the invitation to participate in this vital event. This is a make-or break year to confront the climate emergency, as the UN Secretary-General has said. Climate change is an overarching threat to human rights, and its impacts are already upon us. All of us.

Over the past pandemic year, we have seen the COVID-19 crisis being met with disarray, delays and disunity. We have also seen the opposite. We have seen extraordinary innovation; many new examples of cooperation across a wide range of sectors; and a fast-moving global effort to promote vaccines globally – for everyone's benefit.

In the next year, as we strive to overcome COVID-19, we also must address the even more overwhelming threat of climate change.

We need to move fast. We have to learn the lessons of COVID – including our new understanding of ways that human rights protection gaps act as conduits and multipliers of disasters – and our grasp of the human rights based policies that work to combat crises that impact the entire globe. And we need to apply those lessons to climate change.

Human rights are the key to devising climate policies that are equitable, inclusive and effective. This is why my Office recently joined 14 other UN entities in calling for global recognition of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This right, recognized by more than 150 States, empowers individuals and communities to press for, and participate, in actions to ensure a safe and stable climate.

Human rights mechanisms have a critical role in ensuring human rights-based climate action. In 2020, the UN human rights mechanisms issued 181 recommendations or observations related to climate change or the environment. Recommendations issued during UPR reviews at the Human Rights Council are often explicitly supported by the countries concerned. In 2020, this was the case of 49 of the 51 UPR recommendations targeted to climate issues – helping to build and strengthen the determination to act.

Guidance from human rights experts helps States to analyse the detailed human consequences of climate policies on specific population groups – notably, those whose concerns are often marginalised or neglected. Like my Office, expert mechanisms can also make significant contributions to law and policy.

In 2018, The Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 36 on the right to life was cited in the path-breaking Urgenda climate litigation in the Netherlands, and in 2020 the contributions of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment were influential in the Friends of the Irish Environment case in Ireland.

The Human Rights Committee's recent recognition that climate change may trigger non-refoulement obligations builds upon an evolving understanding of the severity of the human rights impacts of climate change and the need to establish durable, legal pathways for the migration with dignity of those worst affected.

But the most effective environmental actions are those that include and are led by the people who are most affected. I pay tribute to the activism of indigenous peoples, men and women environmental human rights defenders, and youth movements that are calling attention to the unjust and disproportionate effects of the climate emergency, and working to preserve human rights.

These voices must be more than present in the run up to COP 26 – they must be prominent, and even pre-eminent. The structure and substance of climate negotiations should embody a participatory, human rights-based approach, and we must find an equitable solution to the challenge that unequal vaccine access poses for in-person negotiations.

I am convinced that we can come to COP 26 with a new, stronger understanding of what exactly is at stake. Because in terms of deaths; economic damage and extreme poverty; social tensions and violence; displacement; and the potential impact on conflict and profound underdevelopment, the damage that climate change will or could inflict is far greater even than COVID-19 – and over a much longer period.

So we have an unmissable opportunity this year, to meaningfully tackle these issues. We need to secure climate justice, including by addressing gender inequality, intergenerational inequity, and environmental racism. We need detailed, concrete, concerted, ambitious action to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

We have learned that we can do this. We have learned that we must do this. And we have learned how we must do this – by putting human rights at the centre of climate action.