Yesterday, the world celebrated Human Rights Day, a day dedicated to the commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Although the world in the late 1940s was even more divided than it is today, with the emergence of Eastern and Western blocks, common ground was achieved around the ambitious text of the UDHR within a remarkable two years. Despite its shortcomings, it is worth recognizing that the UDHR, over the past 67 years, has contributed to raising international awareness about the importance of human rights and their indivisibility.
At the ongoing 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Paris, the international community has gathered to negotiate an agreement that aims to help the fight against human induced climate change. Addressing a global challenge, whether climate change or fundamental threats to human rights requires: 1) global recognition of the problem and its impact by world leaders, 2) the political will to act, and 3) the willingness to act in a fair, humane and effective manner. Both “on the ground” experiences of the immediate consequences of the change in weather patterns and the scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have highlighted the need for urgent action worldwide before it is too late.
As stated by U.S. President Barack Obama, “[…] we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.” In the words of the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance, “Who pays?”, “Who decides?”, “Which Actions?”, and “Why wait?” are major questions that need answering if fair and pragmatic mitigation and adaptation measures are to be reached.
A human rights approach to climate change should inform the answers to these questions. There is consensus today that climate change will have a devastating human rights impact, ranging from the loss of lives and displacement to reduced access to food and water resources. In its Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Changes, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasizes the need for climate action that is consistent with existing human rights agreements, obligations, standards and principles. In the current negotiations in Paris, States cannot agree whether to include a strong emphasis on human rights in the operative text of the agreement.
On the one hand, delegates from a number of countries have emphasized that including human rights language will provide guidance to governments on their obligations to ensure that human rights are protected in carrying out the Paris Agreement. There are, however, concerns that poorly worded human rights provisions can be misused as a form of donor conditionality for investments that otherwise aim to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices.
A human rights approach to climate governance, which relies on the principles of climate justice, entails first and foremost the recognition of the existential risk to humans – across the globe – if the necessary collective and individual actions are not taken to reduce greenhouse gases emissions and to mitigate the effects of climate change. Secondly, it entails the recognition of the historical responsibility of industrialized nations to aid less developed countries in achieving economic development through, among other measures, the transfer of environmentally sound technologies and sustainable foreign direct investment. Last but not least, a human rights based approach to climate governance includes the provision of avenues for redress for damages caused by natural disasters.
The explicit recognition of human rights in responding to climate change can elevate the importance of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Additionally, this can serve as a constitutional guarantee for victims of climate change’s effects of a channel for recourse to justice.
While the definition and practical application of human rights differs across regions, human dignity underpins human rights norms. The impact of climate change will be catastrophic for future generations and may gravely affect the dignity of its victims. Environmentally-induced violence that can occur due to the changing weather patterns calls for the use of “humanitarian” principles to inform how we deal with climate change. Without a viable planet, human rights as we see and enjoy them today may be a thing of the past for future generations.
Therefore, as we celebrate Human Rights Day around the world, one can only hope that concern for the inalienable rights of present and future generations will guide the final debates among negotiating states and result in a strong and humane Paris Agreement. Concretely, it would be instrumental to have “human rights” as a part of Article 2 of the Agreement, which presents the instrument’s purposes. However, this option has been rejected in the latest draft Agreement. Nevertheless, it would go a long way if the implementation of provisions of the Agreement’s for example in relation to Loss and Damages and Transparency are guided by the justice imperatives of climate change victims.