OPINION: Climate justice and human rights movements must go hand-in-hand

by Amol Mehra and Ilan Vuddamalay | Laudes Foundation
Tuesday, 16 March 2021 11:32 GMT

Filipino climate activists hold placards calling for climate action as a part of global climate change protests, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 25, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

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Paris Agreement and progress towards mandatory due diligence laws could transform the global economy

Amol Mehra is the Director of Industry Transformation at Laudes Foundation, while Ilan Vuddamalay is a Senior Programme Manager for Labour Rights.

The climate justice and human rights movements have been on separate paths for far too long. Both have made considerable progress in the past decade, but if we are going to see the type of transformational change that our times require in either, the two must come together. Recent advancements indicate that this is starting to take place. 

The climate movement reached a watershed moment when the Paris Agreement entered into force in 2016.  Over 196 governments around the world set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, an unprecedented challenge of coordination and action. They also sent a bold message to actors across all sectors – from finance and business, to civil society and philanthropy – that it was time for action. 

Concurrently, the field of business and human rights rapidly accelerated in 2010 when the United Nations endorsed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a framework to prevent and address the risk of adverse impacts of business activities on human rights. Governments have been encouraged to translate the UNGPs into national action plans or roadmaps. At the same time, demands on the corporate sector to implement human rights due diligence, a central component of the UNGPs, intensified. Lawmakers saw an opportunity to recognize the expectation of due diligence behaviour on the part of companies, and governments started legal mandates, including the French Devoir de Vigilance law of 2017, the Dutch Child Labour Law of 2019. Most recently, the European Parliament indicated through a large majority the likelihood of adopting an EU-wide mandatory due diligence law that would cover human rights and environmental issues. 

Both the Paris Agreement and the advancements towards mandatory due diligence have the potential for a huge, transformational effect across our economy. As governments and the private sector race to decarbonize and minimize their harmful greenhouse gas emissions, legal requirements on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence are being instituted that can themselves spur this action through incentives and sanctions.  

For instance, a company’s failure to decarbonize could be seen as contributing to human rights and environmental violations under a mandatory due diligence regime. The researcher Chiara Macchi has termed this merger “climate due diligence” and argues it as an emerging notion requiring corporations to assess and address risk, as well as to integrate the climate change dimension into vigilance planning, corporate reporting, external communication and investment decisions.  

This concept is being tested in real-time in France. Oil giant Total is being sued by French nonprofit and law firm Sherpa together with 14 French local authorities and four NGOs. The suit alleges that Total’s failure to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its operations is a violation of the French Devoir de Vigilance law, France’s seminal legislation that required a duty of care from French companies for human rights and environmental harms. 

Sandra Cossart, Sherpa’s Director, said: “This law specifically obliges companies to prevent the risks of human rights and environmental violations caused by their activities, and to do so in an appropriate manner. Total is legally required to identify the risks resulting from its contribution to global warming and to take the necessary measures to reduce its emissions.”

(Editor’s note: After the lawsuit was filed in January last year, Total said it regretted the legal action taken, adding it was working in compliance with national legal standards. The case is ongoing.)

The same French law is also being applied to pursue broader climate justice and just transition issues by representatives of the community of Unión Hidalgo in Mexico. The civil lawsuit against Electricité de France (EDF)’s wind park project focuses on the non-compliance of EDF with its vigilance duties to respect human rights by seeking free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous Union Hidalgo community. 

(Editor’s note: The EDF did not respond to a request for comment by the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the lawsuit).

The urgency of addressing the climate crisis is clear, and avenues to accelerate needed transformation in our economy are expanding, including through legal mechanisms like mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. If Europe moves to a standardized mandatory due diligence approach with a right of action, this could be an incredible tool to shift momentum on corporations in addressing their greenhouse gas emissions. Two distinct paths, the Paris Agreement and the UNGPs and the resulting momentum towards mandatory human rights due diligence, are indeed converging, and this couldn’t happen soon enough. 

Editor’s note: the Thomson Reuters Foundation is in a partnership with Laudes Foundation.