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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

High Commissioner calls on Pacific nations to continue their work at the forefront of the global fight for climate justice

17 August 2020

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Welcome, and thanks to all of you for coming together for this Workshop on protecting the rights of the people of low-lying Atoll nations from the existential threat of climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis share some dangerous characteristics.

They are global, respecting no borders.

They are multidimensional: beyond their immediate impact – on human health, or on the environment – they also have immense consequences for economic, social, civil and political rights, as well as the right to development.

Both of these catastrophes are already setting back progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Those who suffer the worst are those most frequently left behind: the poor; the discriminated; and those already forced to leave their homes.

And effective responses to both the pandemic and the climate crisis require immediate and global action to uphold the human rights of everyone.

We are all in this together.  And only through powerful, coordinated, transformative action to support fundamental rights – such as the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment – will we be able to establish health and wellbeing for everyone.

For the people of Atoll nations, the climate crisis undermines the very basis of human dignity. It threatens their ways of life and livelihoods, their territorial integrity, their cultures and their very existence as nations.

Rising tides are poised to submerge entire islands – a process that is accelerating as reef ecosystems, which provide natural protection against storm surges and high tides, continue to deteriorate. Increased vulnerabilities in all parts of life – including water, food, sanitation, infrastructure, fisheries and tourism – as well as the loss of homes, have already forced many inhabitants of Atoll nations to leave their long-held lands.

This is unjust. Atoll nations have contributed almost nothing to the causes of climate change. It is vital that we, as the international community, stand with the people of Atoll nations to ensure we do all we can to uphold their human rights – including their rights to a healthy environment, to culture, and to life itself.

We must keep global heating from exceeding the 1.5° Celsius target that Atoll nations fought so hard for in Paris. Every country needs to update its nationally determined contribution and seriously address climate issues. Strengthening our climate ambition should be viewed as a fundamental human rights obligation to future generations – and to all those unjustly affected by a climate crisis not of their making.

Moreover, we owe it to those most affected to address the loss and damage they have endured, and ensure they have access to effective remedies that hold those responsible for climate change to account.

We must also mobilise adequate finance for adaptation and resilience that benefits those most affected by climate change.

And we need to frame our work within the bigger picture that encompasses the links between a safe climate and the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems. The upcoming global climate and biodiversity negotiations offer a chance to address this, by integrating human rights in the critical work of the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

I call on low-lying Atoll nations to continue their work at the forefront of the global fight for climate justice.

I commend Kiribati, Maldives, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu for initiating the Atoll Adaptation Dialogue and identifying eight concrete priorities for adaptation in the Atoll nations. I am also glad to see the Marshall Islands take up its seat at the Human Right Council, joining Fiji in raising the climate alert at the world's leading inter-governmental human rights body.
I am convinced that an approach grounded in international human rights law can drive stronger global and regional action against climate change.

A human rights-based approach ensures that States take climate action based on the accountability, non-discrimination, transparency, solidarity, equality, equity, empowerment and rule of law.

It also builds on the right to an effective remedy for loss and damage – a vital theme in Pacific island nations.

In particular, a human rights-based approach promotes meaningful participation by every stakeholder. Indigenous peoples, the elderly, children, persons with disabilities, persons living in poverty and women are often marginalized and at greatest risk. They must be part of the climate solution.

I am very glad to see that civil society organisations and young people are involved in this workshop. We should also emphasise the contributions of our elders. Traditional knowledge, passed from generation to generation and accumulated throughout history, can help save the planet and Atoll nations if this knowledge and the rights of its bearers is protected and respected.

Dear friends,

I began these remarks by emphasising the damaging impact that COVID-19 adds to the calamity of our climate crisis.

But building back from COVID-19 – as every State will have to do – is also an opportunity to address climate change by building new systems that are more fair and more resilient, in a world that is cleaner and safer.

In the coming months, as Governments and businesses adopt measures to revive their economies and societies, they have a duty to address inequalities – and to make transformational shifts to green processes, with zero emissions.

We need to act now, with powerful advocacy and detailed recommendations that can drive the best possible decisions. And we need your leadership, as the people and Government representatives of Atoll nations, to help guide the way.

My Office stands ready to support your efforts and the outcomes of this workshop.

Thank you.