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Warming-hit nations get closer to creating U.N. climate rights envoy

by Laurie Goering and Beh Lih Yi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 September 2021 15:01 GMT

A man holding a baby wades through a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China July 22, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

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As more countries are slammed by devastating floods, storms and wildfires, the push for an envoy to protect the climate-vulnerable is gaining backers

* Push growing for new U.N. climate and human rights envoy

* Disaster-hit small island states among strongest backers

* Current meeting of U.N. Human Rights Council may take up idea

By Laurie Goering and Beh Lih Yi

LONDON/KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A long-standing push by climate-vulnerable nations for a new United Nations' special envoy on climate change and human rights is making headway, as leaders call for stepped-up measures to deal with the "biggest threat to human rights this century".

Since 2019, the call for a new U.N. special rapporteur - a position initially backed by a range of environment and rights groups - has been led by the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a developing-nation group.

It is gaining supporters as an ever-wider range of countries are slammed by increasingly devastating floods, storms, wildfires and droughts, or threatened by rising seas as glaciers and ice sheets melt on a heating planet.

"It is amazing this position has not already been created. The need for it is so obvious," Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the low-lying Maldives, told an online event this week.

The potential new post is expected to be deliberated at the ongoing Sept. 13-Oct. 8 session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, as one of two new resolutions related to the environment, according to diplomats.

From the Bahamas to the Marshall Islands, countries on the frontlines of climate change said they had been struggling to deal with surging losses of lives, homes and income from more frequent and damaging severe weather.

"When that happens, we need someone to go to the damaged country, the affected people and make an assessment on what happened," Nasheed told journalists on Thursday.

The former president, who is also ambassador of the 48-member CVF, said such visits were needed to investigate the cause of the disasters, and help determine who was hurt and who was responsible.

The U.N. Human Rights Council "will lose a lot of respect" if it refuses to create the position, he told a separate event this week on the sidelines of the ongoing council meeting.

"The Human Rights Council is designed to protect human rights - and climate change is the biggest threat to human rights this century," he added.


Climate threats are expected to take centre stage at the U.N. council's current session.

Its chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday, during the meeting's opening, that the "triple planetary crises" of climate change, pollution and nature loss represented "the single greatest challenge to human rights of our era".

Proponents of a special envoy on climate change and human rights said the new position would give the issue higher priority within the United Nations.

It would also give the appointee a dedicated mandate to protect people from runaway climate change and its impacts.

"There is not, and has not been, a dedicated focus on climate change and human rights in itself... a focus that all vulnerable countries deserve," said Doreen De Brum, U.N. ambassador and permanent representative of the Marshall Islands.

This week, a number of island nations and countries from Poland to Uruguay indicated at an event on the sidelines of the Human Rights Council meeting that they backed a rapporteur.

A U.N. official said the exact role would depend on the final text establishing the position - but noted climate change will threaten a broad range of human rights.

Already vulnerable populations - from children to the elderly - will be particularly at risk, he said, urging swifter action to cut emissions and limit global warming.

"Things will only get worse if we don't change our behaviour now," said Benjamin Schachter, environment and climate coordinator for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Climate change is expected to push 100 million more people into poverty by 2030, and add a quarter of a million deaths a year from things like heat stress, malnutrition and diseases, he noted.


A U.N. climate science panel warned in an August report that climate change is dangerously close to spiralling out of control and will bring disruption globally for decades to come.

The panel said the average global temperature will likely cross the 1.5-degree Celsius warming threshold within the next 20 years - bringing stronger droughts, heatwaves, floods and storms.

Meanwhile, global emissions are still rising - and national pledges to cut them are inadequate to keep warming to "well below" 2C above pre-industrial times, and ideally to 1.5C, as about 195 countries committed to under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Eamon Gilmore, European Union Special Representative for Human Rights, said he saw the role of a U.N. special rapporteur in part as just "keeping human rights on the agenda" around climate change.

He cited the example of devastating floods in Belgium and Germany this year, which opened eyes to the immediacy and scale of risks facing nearly all countries.

"Climate change is not just something happening out there in the atmosphere. It's important to know it is happening to people and it is happening in the here and now," Gilmore said.

In the Caribbean island nation of the Bahamas, under threat from rising seas and hurricanes, people are scared of what they already see happening - and think efforts to highlight the human rights implications could drive action, its U.N. ambassador said.

"When history speaks of us, let it not be said the council did too little, or did it too late," noted Keva Bain.

Related stories:

Bleak future feared for Asia's disaster-prone poor after UN climate report 

Human rights threats in warming world could speed climate action

Hit by COVID and climate change, island states battle debt crisis 

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi in Kuala Lumpur and Laurie Goering in London; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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