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The Council’s full-day panel debate on climate change should be a springboard for further and deeper action in the run-up to COP21 in Paris

by Professor John H. Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment Blog, Contemporary and emerging human rights issues

The 28th session of the Human Rights Council marks the end of the initial three-year term of the mandate of the Independent Expert on human rights and the environment. Over the past year, in my capacity as the Independent Expert, I have focused on identifying, promoting and exchanging views on good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations to inform, support and strengthen environmental policymaking. My third annual report to the Council presents a compilation of over 100 such good practices, and builds on my second annual report that mapped human rights obligations relating to the environment.

This session of the Council presents a good opportunity to take stock of how far the relationship between human rights and the environment has come. The relationship is much clearer than it has ever been before. It is now universally recognised that environmental harm can and often does interfere with the enjoyment of a wide spectrum of human rights. Moreover, as I described in my mapping report last year, human rights bodies have identified procedural and substantive obligations of states to protect human rights from environmental harm, including, in particular, protection of those most vulnerable to environmental harm. In its March 2014 resolution on human rights and the environment, the Council affirmed many such obligations.

Despite this growing clarity, however, many areas require further examination. A pressing example is climate change. Since the Council first drew attention to the implications of climate change for human rights in resolution 7/23 in 2008, the linkage between global warming and its impacts on human rights has become widely accepted. The Cancun Agreements, adopted in December 2010 by the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), quote language from Human Rights Council resolution 10/4 of 2009, recognizing that ‘the adverse effects of climate change have a range of direct and indirect implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights.’ In the Council’s most recent resolution on climate change, adopted in June 2014, it reaffirmed its recognition of the adverse effects of climate change on human rights and decided that it would hold a full-day discussion on human rights and climate change, which is taking place tomorrow, Friday 6th March.

The resolution also requested Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts to examine climate change within the scope of their mandates. I held a consultation in July in Geneva, where governments, academic experts, and civil society representatives discussed the relationship of climate change and human rights. On Human Rights Day, 10th December 2014, all 76 UN Special Procedures mandate holders issued a joint statement on climate change, which urged states to integrate human rights in the climate negotiations aimed at adopting a new climate agreement in Paris in December 2015.

Most recently, on 13 February 2015, 18 states signed the Geneva Pledge on the occasion of the meeting of the UNFCCC’s Ad Hoc Working Group for the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The diverse group of states noted that: ‘human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policymaking in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes.’ They pledged to ‘enable meaningful collaboration’ between national representatives engaged in the UNFCCC and the processes of the Human Rights Council, including by striving ‘to include human rights knowledge in [their] delegations to the UNFCCC and where applicable, climate change expertise in the [Human Rights Council].’

Tomorrow’s Council panel discussion on climate change is the latest step in this larger process. The morning session will discuss challenges and ways forward, including best practices, in addressing the adverse effects of climate change on the full and effective enjoyment of human rights; while the afternoon session will focus on the adverse impacts of climate change on states’ efforts to progressively realise the right to food. I hope that this discussion will provide a basis for further work, both in the Council and elsewhere, on this issue. It is particularly important for the Council and the UNFCCC to continue to engage in a dialogue on this global threat to human rights.


Watch tomorrow’s full day panel discussion on human rights and climate change live online from 9am CET.

Image “Human Rights Council” by UN Geneva, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0