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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

25th session of the Conference of the Parties - ONE UN Side event - SDG 16 and realizing the right to participate: empowering people as agents of more effective climate action

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

09 December 2019



9 December 2019 18:30 – 20:00

Distinguished Ministers,


Friends and colleagues – from UNICEF, ECLAC, UN Environment, ILO, UN Women, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Economic Commission for Europe, across the UN family and beyond,

Human rights are not luxuries that only rich and peaceful societies can afford. They are the levers and tools that construct greater peace, security, social resilience, public trust – and more sustainable development. The UN Charter pays explicit tribute to its foundations in human rights, as does the 2030 Agenda. At its heart is the struggle to eliminate discrimination – notably with its strong and detailed commitments to end the marginalisation and exclusion of women and girls, and its inspiring mantra of leaving no-one behind. 

The Sustainable Development Goals commit every State, and every UN entity to ensuring that every person has the opportunity to participate in and benefit from development. But this promise, this right to development, is directly threatened by the injustices, and severe harms to human rights, created by our growing climate emergency.  

In recent months, people across the world have taken to the streets to insist on their right to participate in decisions about their lives and their futures. They are demanding that their human rights be respected, and they are calling for urgent, just and effective action to right the wrongs done to them by climate change.

The principle of intergenerational equity recognized in the Paris Agreement places a duty on us to act as responsible stewards of our environment, and ensure that future generations can fulfill their human rights. But the international community has accomplished very little in terms of concrete climate action. Nearly 30 years after adoption of the UNFCCC, global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. To understand why, we need look no further than the power imbalances between the businesses and institutions who stood to gain the most from petroleum-fueled growth, and the people who have suffered its worst impacts.  

Meaningful participation by people in decisions that have an impact on their lives is among the most important components of the 2030 Agenda. It cuts across all SDG goals, and it is given particular importance by SDG 16. Moreover, inder international human rights law and international environmental law, States have an obligation to ensure that all people have the right to participation, access to information and access to justice in environmental matters.

We will not adequately tackle the climate emergency until we uphold those rights – until the people most affected by climate change are empowered to meaningfully and effectively participate in climate decision-making processes that are governed by transparency, equity, inclusiveness and accountability.

We need to recognize the authenticity of the anger, grief and pain that so many young people, and others, are voicing – and we need to act, to preserve their future.

Until then, the climate crisis will continue to generate severe human rights harms in communities around the world – eroding access to food, water and sanitation, adequate housing, health, and decent work among other fundamental human rights. Inequalities will intensify, as those who have the least are among those most exposed by climate threats. Marginalised communities who live in vulnerable areas, without adequate protection from climate harms; women, who are often responsible for subsistence and the daily needs of families; individuals who already suffer discrimination or poverty; and those working in the informal economy will suffer the worst impacts of climate change as they struggle to  make their voices heard.

When national climate commitments, including nationally determined contributions, are shaped by the people most affected by climate change, there can be no doubt that they will be more ambitious – and more effective.

Only by listening to people who are habitually silenced can we detect grievances, and address the realities of exclusion and harm. Participation is a fundamental right of all people; it is essential, to ensure justice – and it is also necessary for all societies to address climate challenges effectively.

For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has emphasized that "indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples' holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change." By empowering indigenous peoples and guaranteeing them control over their traditional knowledge, lands, and territories, States can simultaneously improve climate mitigation and adaptation efforts and the situation of indigenous peoples.

At the UNFCCC, we need to support efforts to strengthen the participation of local communities and indigenous peoples in decision-making, including through the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples' Platform. And we need all States to better protect indigenous peoples' rights and those of local communities, in the face of land grabs and climate harms. They need full access to information; meaningful and effective participation; and adequate protection.

The work done by human rights defenders, including many indigenous defenders, to protect and advocate for our environmental rights has helped to advance the protection of the environment for all of us. The online hate campaigns, real-world violence and even murders of environmental defenders that we see today are threats to us all. At least three environmental human rights defenders are killed every week – with women, land rights activists and indigenous peoples among those  at greatest risk. These crimes frequently go unpunished, just as many human rights defenders do not receive appropriate protection. Moreover, in some States criminal justice systems are misused to target legitimate activism.

At country level, we need stronger efforts and more effective advocacy to protect and support human rights defenders in addressing climate change, without fear of reprisals.

There are good practices leading the way. In particular, I congratulate the UN Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean on the Escazú Agreement, which – like the Aarhus Convention and Rio Principle 10 – protects participation, access to information and access to justice in environmental matters. It is also the first international treaty to include specific provisions on environmental human rights defenders. With this landmark agreement now in place and signed by 21 ECLAC Member States, we need swift ratification and implementation, so that its vital protections can have their intended effect.

We also need action at the UNFCCC. The rules for implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement should include basic human rights protections. Climate actions that are undertaken without integrating human rights considerations – and development projects that have been established without free, prior, and informed consent of affected communities – have already led to significant social and environmental damage, including land degradation, harm to health, and the displacement of communities.

Like the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund and the REDD+ framework, all Article 6 mechanisms should integrate human rights-based social and environmental safeguards just as Meaningful and effective participation by all stakeholders should be considered a key criteria to ensure that all projects are better designed and more sustainable. And every Article 6 mechanism should establish a system for grievances and redress that is independent, easy to access  and demonstrably impartial.

People's right to participate and express their opinions – including critical opinions – is crucial to achieving a full picture of the challenges ahead of us, and to devising solutions that are equitable, effective and sustainable. All of us need to take a stand to promote and fulfil this right in the context of climate change. Only then can we hope to succeed in preserving a safe and stable climate for all of humanity –and future generations.

Thank you