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INTERVIEW-As climate protests mount, governments urged to respect civil rights

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 26 June 2019 17:00 GMT

Police officers remove the chains of climate activists demonstrating outside the Chancellory in Berlin, Germany, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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Alston warned in a report that even in the 'best-case scenario', hundreds of millions would face food insecurity, forced migration, disease and death, as the planet heats up

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As pressure ramps up on governments to push through the large economic and social shifts needed to curb climate change, little consideration has been given to the potential consequences for civil and political rights, said a U.N. human rights expert.

Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned that fossil fuel firms and others whose business is at odds with a low-carbon world were "digging in their heels", forcing policy makers to face hard choices.

"Given the likelihood there will be very strong resistance (to change), governments are going to have to make difficult decisions... as to how the necessary emergency actions will be taken in the next decade," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"That in turn will raise issues of all sorts of human rights," said the Australian academic, a professor at the New York University School of Law.

Alston cited the recent declaration of a "climate emergency" by Britain's parliament, after climate change activists with the Extinction Rebellion group held a series of non-violent protests in April, blocking transport and major roads in London.

The word "emergency" - which is becoming more widely used both by politicians and the media to describe the effects of global warming - rings alarm bells about the potential suspension of a wide range of civil liberties, he warned.

"I think there's no reason why that won't be a temptation moving forward if governments think that is the only way to bring about the action needed," he added.

He described recent events in Oregon - where Republican lawmakers absconded from the senate last week to block a vote on a bill to cut climate-changing emissions - as "descending into lawlessness".

Some right-wing militia groups have expressed support for the absent lawmakers.

France, meanwhile, has experienced civil unrest since last year when planned fuel tax hikes sparked a "yellow vests" movement over rising inequality, with people taking to the streets, leading to violent clashes with police.

Alston said the growing urgency of climate action would likely generate similar public protests - and French President Emmanuel Macron had done the right thing by organising nationwide consultations on broader policy reforms.

"Governments are going to have to work out ways of permitting these expressions of community insistence on radical change without resorting to the usual crowd control, suppression of dissent and so on," Alston said.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change set a goal to keep global average temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times but the world is on track for warming of at least 3C.

Scientists predict that could bring catastrophic floods, droughts, heatwaves and sea-level rise, among other impacts.

On Tuesday, Alston warned in a report that even in the "best-case scenario", hundreds of millions would face food insecurity, forced migration, disease and death, as the planet heats up.

The world's poorest would bear the brunt, leading to a situation of "climate apartheid", in which the rich buy their way out of the worst effects while the rest suffer, it said.

Those working on international development and improving social welfare must realise that climate change will undermine decades of progress on reducing poverty, Alston said.

For the poor, "the floods are going to get them first, the heatwaves are going to kill them first, the massive dislocation is going to hit poor people who can't afford to move elsewhere," he said from Geneva.


On Friday, the independent expert will present his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which he berated for taking little concrete action to address the human rights repercussions of climate change.

He said it had only issued toothless resolutions so far.

An opening speech at the current session by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday made only fleeting reference to climate change, Alston said.

"If we take it to be an overarching issue that is going to affect all dimensions of human rights, I think that (lack of emphasis) needs to change," he added.

The council should put climate change "front and centre" in its deliberations, and set up an expert group to recommend how the issue could fit into the council's different activities, Alston said.

He also criticised global rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for being slow to mobilise their significant supporter bases to hold governments to account on climate change, saying they had achieved "almost nothing" so far.

Since last August, Amnesty has been led by well-known climate campaigner and former head of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, and said it planned to step up its work on the issue.

Chiara Liguori, Amnesty policy advisor, said the human rights movement should be a "key player" in a diverse mass movement to oppose those standing in the way of climate action.

She said Amnesty agreed with Alston that it needed to do much more.

It has started campaigning in several countries this year, from advocating for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in Canada, to urging South Africa's new government to commit to ambitious emissions reductions, she noted.

Human Rights Watch said it was committed to prioritising work on the environment and human rights.

"We are in the process of building out and cultivating internal expertise, as well as strengthening our partnerships with experts in the field," it said by email.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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