The human faces of climate change: Why rights protections must be included in the Paris agreement

María José Veramendi Villa, Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)

There is no doubt that climate change interferes with the fulfillment of human rights. The rights to life, physical integrity, food, water, housing, participation and access to information are among those most affected. At the same time, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is meeting in Lima (COP20), Typhoon Hagupit is hitting the Philippines. It is the third year in a row that the Philippines has been hit by a deadly typhoon during the climate change COPs. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit during COP19 in Warsaw, killing 7,350 people, and in 2012 Typhoon Bopha hit during COP18 in Doha, killing 600.

This year’s COP is negotiating a draft text that will be the basis for a new binding climate agreement to be approved in COP21 in Paris next year. As the climate talks move forward, UN human rights experts, along with civil society organisations, call upon the Parties to the UNFCCC to ensure that the agreement expressly recognises human rights obligations that apply in the context of climate change. Building on the legacy of the Cancun Agreements adopted at COP16, which emphasises that State Parties to the UNFCCC “should, in all climate change related actions, fully respect human rights,” they are requesting the incorporation of core and operative language in the new agreement states that Parties “shall, in all climate change-related actions, respect, protect, promote, and fulfil human rights for all.”

The implementation of projects under response measures including the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) show why it is imperative that rights be respected in all climate change-related actions. As the CDM – which provides for emissions reduction projects in developing countries – has become operational, more and more projects raising human rights violations have emerged.

A case in point: In 2014, the Santa Rita dam project in Icbolay river in Guatemala was registered under the CDM. Maximo Ba Tiul, Indigenous Q’equchi and Representative of the People’s Council of Tezulutlán traveled to Lima to tell COP Parties and other participants about human rights violations against the communities. Along with the environmental harm, he describes intimidation, harassment and even murders of community members in order to ensure the project will proceed. In August 2014, 1,600 policemen came to repress the community in order to start construction of the Santa Rita dam.

Another case is the Barro Blanco project, a hydroelectric dam that is currently under construction on the Tabasará River in western Panama. Once completed, the dam is projected to flood homes, schools, and religious, historical and cultural sites in Ngäbe indigenous territories, threatening the Ngäbe’s cultural heritage. In addition, the dam will transform the Tabasará River – critical to the Ngäbe’s physical, cultural, and economic survival – from a flowing river to a stagnant lake ecosystem. This will severely affect the Ngäbe’s lands and means of subsistence, and result in the forced relocation of many families. CDM rules require investors to consult with local stakeholders and to take their comments into account during the registration process. However, the company did not consult the Ngäbe communities regarding the Barro Blanco project and its impacts, nor did the State comply with the communities’ right to be consulted under international human rights law. “We are demanding respect, which is the one of the few things we have left”, said Weni Bagama an indigenous leader of the Ngäbe community.

On Human Rights Day, more than 200 organisations have signed a letter calling upon Parties to the UNFCCC to:

  • adopt urgent and ambitious mitigation action to protect human rights;
  • use a rights-based approach as a critical tool to effective outcomes, including in the development and implementation of climate policies, mechanisms and institutions; and
  • recognise that the climate framework must address the human rights impacts of climate change and climate policies.

NOW is the time to fully integrate rights protections in the climate regime.