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21st EU-NGO Human Rights ForumBuilding a fair environmental future

04 December 2019

4 December 2019, Brussels

Distinguished experts, activists,
Colleagues and friends, 

It is an honor to join you for this dialogue and, on behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, thank you for the opportunity to do so.

As you know far better than I, thanks to rapacious consumption, climate instability is now the major source and multiplier of threats to human dignity and sustainable development - driving conflict, cruelty, cost and casualty.  In other words, climate change -- indelibly, inevitably, unavoidably -- is a human rights issue.  It is why, along with so many others, the international human rights system itself must step up its efforts too to help the world meet this challenge and its threat.
In that context, I want to thank the European Union in particular for the example they have set, even though of them, we must now also ask so much more. The EU has led calls for rights-based climate action and is one of the few parties to the Paris Agreement projected to fulfill its Nationaly Determined Contribution while the European Green Deal promises a true strengthening of that leadership. The European institutions and member states are the top provider of official development assistance and the biggest contributor of public climate finance to developing countries. 

In addition, the visionary Council ofEurope Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has urged recognition globally of a right to a healthy environment, in line with the European Committee of Social Rights’ finding that the right to protection of health in the European Social Charter necessarily includes the right to a healthy environment.

But, that said, a global trade agenda that prioritizes short term profit for a few over the long-term environmental damage to us all, has no place in a truly climate conscious Europe. We need European businesses and investors to step up for sound human rights-based climate action, throughout the length and breadth of their supply chains.  Systems that protect the interests of businesses more than the rights of people must not prevail. We must take action to protect human and labour rights as we make the essential transition to green economies, as has been laid out by the ILO1 and in line too with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  Profit must not be allowed a rights-violating battle against prosperity for people, peace and planet.


In all of this effort, it is people themselves who are our greatest natural resource and our most renewable energy for climate action.  If empowered, respected, protected, included, embraced in their diversity and not discriminated because of it, people – as civil society demonstrates daily - are our best first responders, our key adapters and our most powerful source of innovation too.  

Which makes all the more extraordinary, and all the more repellent, the derision, harassment and violence to which environmental defenders, particularly women and indigenous peoples, are subjected with such frequency.  

Each week, over the past two years or so, an average of eight human rights defenders were murdered – assassinated for protecting land rights, for guarding the local habitat for defending livelihoods from business-related harm. Two defenders were allegedly murdered only recently for defending forests in Romania.  

As so many of you here have done too, those environmental human rights defenders - had been sounding the climate alarm over many years, standing up for the rights of those on the frontlines of environmental destruction and climate change-induced damage.  For them, for those whom we have already lost to hatefulness, and for you, we must demand climate justice.  

It is a matter of justice that those least responsible for climate change and yet most harmed by its impacts, must benefit from efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

It is a matter of justice that companies whose enterprises -- in violation of environmental and human rights laws -- damage, harm and destroy habitat, land, forest and river, must enjoy not impunity, but face instead full legal accountability for their reckless corruption.

It is a matter of justice that States must be accountable for their contributions to climate change and to climate action - including for any failures to adequately regulate the emissions under their jurisdiction. 

It is a matter of justice that we who labour, consume, decide today must not be allowed to destroy the future for all those who will come after us.

It is a matter of justice that States must do more to protect defenders and to share resources, knowledge and technology so that climate assistance is transparent, participatory, accountable and non-discriminatory.

Climate adaptation is always about people. And if about people, it is also always about rights.  And about duties.  No matter how grave, how unfamiliar, how unpredictable, how rapid or slow the crisis.

The foundations of the modern human rights system were laid down also in crisis – drafted under the heavy shadow of the caustic moral pollution of deadly concentration camps; at a time when the body count of those lost in the deserts of North Africa and in the jungles of Asia Pacific was far from complete; as humanity stared into an abyss dug deepest by human cruelty, it was then - at those worst of times - amidst the rubble of wide spread destruction, with a generation of young men and women already lost to cruel conflict, having paid the horror price of political complacency and casual accommodation of hateful self-interest, it was then -- out of deep sorrow and deeper regret -- that the founders of the United Nations pledged first - not as countries nor as sovereign nations alone- but as and for “we the peoples” “reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”.  

Throughout human history, if at times of crisis - rapid change or slow in onset; in crises great and small; if at any time the exercise of political and corporate power has been allowed to render our common humanity -- our equal rights – invisible, leaving people behind, elevating the few at cost to the most, then always, without exception, the legacy of those times has been a legacy of shame:  The slavery-based economy; the cruel dehumanising coloniser; the women-excluding parliaments; the unchecked genocide; the racist migration policies; the sexually abusing Hollywood mogul; the disproportionate hateful response to the public demands of youth activists - when the actions of the powerful few trample the dignity of the many, the consequences are toxic always. 

While there is so much that is unique, specific and exceptional about climate instability, global warming and rampant unchecked consumption, there is nothing new about the centrality of people and their fundamental rights. There is no policy abstraction of the planet or its bio-spheres or eco-systems – no degree of strain on our natural resources, no flood or famine - that can find or justify solutions in which rights holders are absent, in which young people are made silent, in which civil society is supressed, in which environmental defenders are slaughtered.

In conservation and wilderness protection, indigenous persons’ rights must be respected. 

In carbon footprint transformation requiring behavioural change by people, people must be informed, active, engaged. 
And we simply must dismantle the impediments to effective mitigation and adaptation – dismantle discrimination, step up transparency, empower civil society, end the violence against defenders, make accountability work for people and bring the people most affected to the tables of our decision-making.


History also tells us that, over the centuries, in all regions of the world, there were many forerunners to the UDHR.  One such example is England’s 13th century Magna Carta – which sought to limit the power of the king and elevate the rights of people (well, a narrow set of people, but people nonetheless). 

It promised the protection of religion, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice. But more often forgotten, is a second document forged at the same time – the 13th century Charter of the Forests.  This companion piece to the Magna Carta restricted privatization and exploitation by the king and nobles of the forests, rivers and fields – the commons - and elaborated instead the rights of ordinary people to public access to “those commons” – protecting the means for livelihood, for shelter and sustenance. 

Some eight centuries later, once more as rights holders, we must defend our access to the commons -- the global commons -- the commons not only of forests, oceans, air and species but the commons too of our interdependent human dignity as it is defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The EU itself is "founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” Today, that means effectively addressing climate threats with internationally coordinated responses based on equity and a just transition to more appropriate economic structures.

In this global project, if we are to achieve sustainable development and effective climate action, then we must also continuously engage the knowledge, wisdom and contribution of environmental defenders, including local communities and indigenous peoples. Suppressions of the freedoms of expression, public participation association, information and assembly are impediments to effective climate action.

And as is the case in all crises, in all that it does and with respect to any future that we may plan or hope for, the State has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons without negative distinction as to their gender, age, ethnicity or any other identity. 

It is not too late but surely overdue, to change the climate for climate change.