UN experts call on climate negotiators to integrate human rights

John H. Knox, Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment

Over 70 human rights experts of the United Nations, including the special rapporteurs on the rights to food, health, water, and an adequate standard of living, as well as the special rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples, minorities, people living in extreme poverty, migrants, and the internally displaced, have issued a joint statement calling on States to integrate human rights norms in the agreement to be adopted in Paris in 2015.

The UN Human Rights Council, the principal UN human rights body, has appointed independent experts to over 50 mandates that address a wide spectrum of human rights issues. From time to time, they come together to issue a statement on a topic of cross-cutting importance. This year, they chose to issue a joint statement on climate change in conjunction with COP20 and in anticipation of Human Rights Day, which falls on 10 December.

There can no longer be any doubt that climate change threatens the enjoyment of a vast range of human rights. Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called it “the biggest human rights issue of the 21st century.” The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) document the harmful effects of climate change on the environment, human health, access to water, sanitation and food, and economic and social development.

Moreover, climate change has a disproportionate effect on many vulnerable individuals and groups, including those whose ways of life are closely tied to the environment. In the words of Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, “the poor will be hit first and hardest. This means that the people who are least responsible for raising the Earth’s temperature may suffer the gravest consequences from global warming. That is fundamentally unfair.”

Mitigation and adaptation measures taken to anticipate and respond to climate change must also respect the human rights of those affected by such measures, including their rights to information and participation.

States have recognised that their obligations under human rights law are relevant to climate change. In 2009, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution affirming that “human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policy making in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes.” Citing that resolution, the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed in the 2010 outcome document adopted by COP16 in Cancun, “that Parties should, in all climate change-related actions, fully respect human rights.”

In the joint statement issued this week, the UN independent experts urge the State Parties to the UNFCCC to ensure that human rights are integrated into climate change governance. Specifically, they renew a call they made in October to the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), for the negotiators to include language in the 2015 climate agreement that provides that the Parties “shall, in all climate change related actions, respect, protect, promote, and fulfil human rights for all.” To that end, the experts call for the Lima Conference to launch a work programme to ensure that climate actions take into account human rights.

No one is suggesting that the climate negotiations should move to the Human Rights Council. At the same time, human rights should not be considered the concern of States only when they are in the Human Rights Council. States do not leave behind their human rights commitments when they negotiate a climate agreement or when they take individual actions to address climate change.

Maintaining a human rights perspective has many benefits. It keeps the focus on the many concrete ways that climate change disrupts the lives of those most at risk. It helps to ensure that response actions are taken with the informed participation of those most affected. And it provides guidelines to measure the success of a climate agreement: whether it safeguards human rights from the harmful effects of climate change.


John H. Knox is a UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment