Climate talks take a wrong turn on human rights, campaigners say

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 December 2015 09:30 GMT

Representatives of indigenous peoples stage a demonstration at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, Dec. 4, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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Indigenous people, women's groups and trade unions decry move to weaken human rights in Paris climate deal

(Updates with new text released on Friday morning)

Human rights obligations must apply when making climate change policy, the U.N. special rapporteur on the issue reminded governments crafting a new deal to tackle global warming in Paris, amid fears references to human rights may be watered down.

On Thursday civil society groups raised the alarm at what they described as an attempt led by Norway to remove a paragraph on respecting human and labour rights, gender equality, and the integrity of ecosystems from the binding part of the agreement.

Representatives of women's groups, indigenous people and trade unions told journalists this was out of step with growing recognition of the negative impacts of more extreme weather and rising seas on people's rights.

"What is the real purpose of this agreement if not to save people and the planet, and promote a better world?" asked Bridget Burns of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation. Women suffer disproportionately in climate-linked disasters, she noted.

And yet they are under-represented at every level, from land ownership to the world leaders who attended the Paris climate talks on Monday to inject a sense of political urgency.

"I don't think most of the world’s population is represented in a photo of navy blue power suits," she added, referring to a "family photograph" of the 150 leaders who spoke in the French capital.

Norway, backed by the United States, Australia and some European countries, are said to be concerned that including human rights protections in the binding part of the agreement could create some form of legal liability if global warming is judged to have violated those rights.

A handful of other nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, have taken an even harder line, wanting human rights to be excluded completely from the text.

But John Knox, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said in a statement that all 195 states in the climate negotiations belonged to at least one human rights treaty.

"They must ensure that all of their actions comply with their human rights obligations. That includes their actions relating to climate change,” he said.

In addition, governments on the Human Rights Council have unanimously agreed that human rights obligations and principles could strengthen climate policy-making, he added.

Global warming of even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times - a limit agreed at U.N. talks in 2010 - would have "devastating effects on the human rights of the most vulnerable”, he warned.


Observers close to the slow-moving negotiations said an article on human rights protections had been removed from the draft agreement text on Thursday, with the only reference remaining in the non-binding introduction, or preamble.

Language on ensuring "integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems" - which means keeping them healthy and self-sustaining - had been taken out entirely, but then reinserted by the Philippines, the observers said.

Some Latin American nations supported this and efforts to retain human rights language in the binding text, they added.

By Friday morning, a shortened paragraph referring to implementation of the agreement on the basis of respect for human rights and the promotion of gender equality had reappeared in in a new version of the text that includes proposals to bridge positions, but in brackets - which means it is still up for discussion.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, described moves to weaken the text as "an appalling attack on the moral compass that is the centre of this agreement".

Labour unions have pushed hard for the agreement to ensure "a just transition of the workforce", which means looking after those whose livelihoods could be threatened by the shift to a low-carbon economy, such as coal miners or other workers in the fossil fuel industry.

"If you don't have this paragraph in the (binding) agreement, then you are eliminating people from it," she told reporters.

Andre Carmen, speaking on behalf of indigenous people’s groups at the Paris conference, said indigenous people were often on the frontline of the fight against fossil fuel exploitation on their lands.

If their rights were not protected by the Paris agreement, "we know that our lands, our ways of life, our biodiversity, our food sources will once again be on the table” when efforts to tackle climate change are stepped up, said the executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

Experts noted that legal complaints involving climate change are already hitting the courts, from New Zealand to Pakistan to the Netherlands, where a judge ruled the government should make deeper cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions.

Respecting human rights when taking climate change action could actually save trouble down the line, by avoiding rights abuses, they said.

U.N. rapporteur Knox said that "even including a reference to human rights in the agreement itself would be of great symbolic and practical importance”.

“The Paris Agreement is vital to the protection of human rights of present and future generations, in every country of the world. (It) should recognise that fact,” he added.

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