– By Fran Mills –
Three years ago, after two weeks of agonising late nights in plenary halls, the historic Paris Agreement was adopted. It was a sigh of relief for many, but civil society organisations were in two minds – on the one hand, it wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but on the other hand, there had been a few big unexpected breakthroughs.
Alongside the surprisingly ambitious 1.5 degree target, one of these breakthroughs was the fact that it became the first multilateral, binding climate agreement in history to include reference to human rights. Included in the preamble were rights-based principles including food security, public participation, gender equality, indigenous peoples’ rights, ecosystem integrity, just transition and – crucially for us youth – intergenerational equity. While not legally binding, inclusion in the preamble meant that the principles were, in theory, to be considered across the whole text. Parties were sending a signal: that we would not only have climate action planned and quantified by numbers, but alongside it we would plan our action and measure our success by the qualitative impacts on humans and ecosystems.
While Paris was a breakthrough, the story isn’t over. In fact, right now at COP24, parties are deciding whether rights will be left to the non-binding preamble or operationalised by including them in various segments of the rulebook. By including rights in the more practical guidelines, it would be made much more likely that ministers would actually read it when planning climate policy. With the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights taking place this week, and the final Rulebook set to be adopted, it really is crunch time for human rights and the climate.
Action for Human Rights to be included in the rulebook at COP24.
Human Rights and Ambition
First and foremost, advocates of human rights want to raise ambition. Fundamentally, climate change is a rights issue – it threatens the right to life. Besides this obvious link, climate change could also exacerbate conflict over resources and migration, is likely to worsen existing inequalities such as gender, and the fact that its negative effects will worsen over time compromises intergenerational equity. Ambition mechanisms such as the Talanoa Dialogue and Global Stocktake, as well as related issues such as the completion of a robust rulebook itself, could therefore have a stronger impact on rights than having reference to rights in the text itself.
Arguably, however, it goes both ways. Ambition protects our rights, but the integration of human rights into climate action, and particularly the right to participate, can foster more ambitious climate targets. It makes sense – if people are allowed to participate and shape a process they are more likely to support it. Likewise, if they know that their rights are protected in the context of climate policy, they are more likely to support that policy. Take the principle of just transition, one of the eight mentioned in the Paris preamble. The concept reassures workers in carbon intensive industries that climate policies will not compromise their livelihoods, and therefore climate action seems less of a threat. In this way, integrating rights-based principles into the Rulebook could serve to increase ambition rather than hinder it through fostering public support.
Both people in the PUSH delegation and the Swedish chief negotiator wear their badges in red lanyards to show support of inclusion of human rights in the Rulebook.
Human Rights at COP24
There are several areas where it would make sense for human rights and the related principles to be incorporated into the Rulebook. One of these is Adaptation, which according to the Paris Agreement should be “gender responsive”, due to climate change impacts differing according to gender. Likewise the Global Stocktake could include inputs from civil society organisations and vulnerable groups, allowing for a qualitative as well as quantitative assessment of climate action. Contentious is Article 6, which includes the Sustainable Development Mechanism – due to violations of Indigenous People’s Rights associated with the previous CDM, many are advocating for consultations with local communities and indigenous people, as well as a grievance mechanism in order to compensate communities negatively affected by any of these projects.
As it stands, adaptation communications (APA 4) recommend that NDCs include gender-inclusive responses, as well as requesting information on traditional knowledge or community-based adaptation to climate change and local communities’ involvement. The Enhanced Transparency Framework gives similar recommendations for adaptation reporting, including gender and traditional knowledge. The Global Stocktake currently contains one reference to stakeholder input, though this is in brackets and therefore liable to disappear.
Maybe the most relevant area where human rights could be incorporated, however, is in the NDC guidelines (APA 3), which will help governments to translate climate targets into policies on the ground. In earlier iterations of the text, “human rights” were explicitly referenced as something to be considered in planning NDCs, alongside the recommendation to consult groups including women, indigenous peoples, elders and youth. However, through the week we have seen text disappear and morph. As it stands, there is still reference to “participatory processes”, though removed are elders and youth. Explicit mention of human rights has been changed to “sustainable development and poverty eradication”, plus a reference to “other contextual issues contained in the Paris preamble”.
However, even this text is precarious, with some parties arguing that we must not “micromanage” countries NDCs, suggesting that large segments of the planning processes are removed. The US is pushing specifically to remove reference to the preamble, and this could be due partially to the rise of climate litigation cases. [We have seen an explosion in the number and success of these cases over the last three years – see the Dutch case, Urgenda, as well as PUSH Sweden’s own People’s Climate Case. In these cases, prosecutors argue that lack of climate action by governments (or in some cases, the activities of fossil fuel companies) equates to a violation of future generation’s right to life – and many of them are winning.] They may fear that by including human rights in the rulebook, they are making themselves more liable to these litigations (while others would point out that they are already obliged to respect these rights, and that litigations are coming whether they are included or not.) Likewise, growing political tensions and the rise of populists such as Trump and Bolsonaro are threatening multilateralism and undermining trust, which could explain the reluctance to allow any binding commitments within NDC planning, as well as the threat of bifurcation between “developed” and “developing” countries including over whether or not they will be requested to include human rights in their planning processes.
It remains to be seen what the final text will look like, to be adopted in the coming week. But, as was done after the humanitarian crisis that sparked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago today, we hope that governments can see that a humanitarian crisis requires a humanitarian response. Climate action is stronger and fairer when it is not only ambitious, but also takes into account both people and the ecosystems we rely on – it is therefore paramount that vulnerable communities are both consulted and considered if we want to achieve climate justice. One way to do this? Human rights.