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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Side Event: Promoting human rights-based climate action for people and planet at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Climate-related human rights violations

13 December 2018

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

12 December 2018

Distinguished Executive Secretary Espinosa,
Colleagues, Friends,

Climate change is not just one of the greatest challenges to global development, science and security in our era. It is also among the greatest affronts to human rights – so devastating, and so compounding, that they really ought to be termed “climate violations / climate related violations / climate-impact human rights violations”. ‘Change’ is too mild a word.  

Climate change threatens the right to life, both in terms of its direct impact and its cascading run-on effects. It threatens the right to food security, the right to water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to self-determination and the right to live in your own country.

Climate change has massively damaging impact on the right to development: just over the past six months we have seen hurricanes repeatedly destroy, in a day, decades of investment in crucial infrastructure projects.

The suffering and deprivation it generates are already forcing large numbers of people to leave their homes, and this forcible displacement – which is another human rights violation – is certain to increase.

This set of violations is severe in the immediate short term, and overwhelming, in both scale and impact, over the longer perspective. And they have particularly drastic effects on people who are already made vulnerable by marginalisation and discrimination. For the poor, for women, for people who are disabled, indigenous people or members of communities that are pushed to the edges of society on the basis of their sexual, racial or religious identity, climate change is a disaster that can exacerbate discrimination and further deprive them of access to fundamental services and goods.

It seems clear that by raising social tensions and decreasing access to resources, the compounded effects of all these hazards may intensify the risk of conflict. Across the Sahel and in several other regions, climate change related grievances are fuelling violence – and in an intensifying cycle of violations and suffering, conflict may force even more people off their land and further aggravate environmental damage.  

Two weeks ago, the authoritative medical journal The Lancet reported that if climate change continues unabated, within decades “Multiple cities will be uninhabitable”. The “prevalence of heatstroke and extreme weather” will redefine our work and lives. The WHO report on climate change and health which was launched here at COP24 last week makes it clear that climate change is already damaging the effective enjoyment of the human right to health for countless people.

Fossil fuel combustion doesn’t just contribute to climate change: it also releases air pollutants with immediate and devastating effects on health. Because of their less developed physiology and immune systems, they especially damage children. In 2016 alone, air pollution caused more than 7 million deaths – over 500,000 of them children under the age of 5. As emissions increase and fossil fuel consumption continues to rise, air pollution will soar – and with it, the burden of mortality, inhibited neural development, impaired lung function, respiratory infection, cardiovascular disease, and cancer that we are inflicting on the world’s children.

Because air pollution doesn’t just happen. Climate violations are not inevitable. They result from choices – deliberate choices, which fly in the face of science, prudence, compassion and human rights law.

  • There is no such thing as an unimportant child. There is no such thing as a human being, or a community, whose rights, and lives, are disposable. And nobody will be safe from the impact of climate change – no wall, and no amount of wealth, will protect anyone from its costs.
  • You may know the saying: if you think economic interests are more important than the environment, try counting your money while holding your breath. Nothing could be more important than the work of ensuring a healthy environment for our planet; and no investment could pay higher dividends.  
  • But this is not only a matter of justice, and not only a question of sound economic self-interest. States have clear human rights obligations with respect to climate change.

State obligations with respect to climate change include duties to provide information about environmental hazards, to facilitate participation in environmental decision-making, and to provide effective remedies for harm. States also must take effective actions to ensure that environmental threats do not adversely affect the enjoyment of human rights. They should not discriminate, in developing and implementing environmental policies, and they have a particular duty to protect those who are most vulnerable to environmental degradation.

Critically, these duties include the requirement that private actors, such as corporations, be adequately regulated, to ensure they do not cause human rights abuse through environmental harm. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also make clear that corporations are required to respect human rights. This includes the direct impact of their operations, but also their efforts to adapt to climate harms.

  • The Paris Agreement calls upon all parties to respect, promote and consider their respective human rights obligations when taking climate action.
  • This emphasis on putting human rights at the front and centre of climate change discussions strongly reinforces the need for States, businesses and all other actors to step up their climate action. 
  • COP24 has been a crucial opportunity to set out measures which will have critical, long-term impact on the lives, dignity, rights and hopes of literally billions of people. Steps taken here in Katowice to support a just transition, to enhance climate ambition, to operationalize the Local Communities and Indigenous Knowledge Platform, and to support implementation of the Paris Agreement will have lasting consequences for the effective enjoyment of the rights of current and future generations.
  • These steps need to ensure particular efforts to protect people in vulnerable situations and leave no one behind.
  • They need to be respectful of the voice and agency of the people most affected by climate violations – including those who have been obliged to leave their homes, and women, whose rights and specific needs are so often, and comprehensively, neglected.
  • They need to ensure that the protection of environmental human rights defenders is absolutely central to all climate talks and to all climate action, by States and businesses.
  • They need to ensure that action to prevent and to mitigate climate change is ambitious, transparent, participatory and accountable, including meaningful and effective stakeholder consultations, and access to remedies. Governments exist to serve their people: only transparency, participation and accountability can ensure this principle is fulfilled.

They need to ensure that adaptation guidelines and action reflect Article 7.5 of the Paris Agreement. That means promoting gender-responsive, participatory and transparent approaches that take into consideration the needs of vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and which are guided by the best available science, as well as traditional knowledge and the knowledge of indigenous peoples.

We need to uphold the Silesia Declaration on just transition, which recognises the value of social dialogue, and commits to creating decent work and quality jobsin the transition to a green economy. Because if the transition is not just, the outcome will not be just, either – and fail to support development that is truly sustainable. 

The role of our Office, and of the UN human rights system as a whole, is to work strongly with our UN partners and Member States to help integrate human rights into policy.

Not just because these are important principles – but because they make all  policies, including climate policies, more effective.

Giving voice to the needs of vulnerable and marginalised people; enhancing equity and cooperation in international decision-making; encouraging more just and sustainable outcomes, through greater participation and accountability –
these and other human rights actions make for better policies, and better outcomes.

As the Secretary General has said, “Climate action offers a compelling path to transform our world for the better.”

Or, in the words of a proverb I have sometimes heard cited, “the blessing lies next to the wound.” 

It is not too late to seize this opportunity to set our world on a better course. 

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a powerful reminder that what connects us is much stronger than what divides us. Even in the most devastating crises, States can take steps to lead their peoples away from disaster, and towards a world of greater justice, safety and wellbeing.

Thank you