24 Jun 2022
Venue: Online | Webex
This side event to the 50th Session of the Human Rights Council was organized by the Geneva Climate Change Consultation Group (GeCCco) and the Geneva Environment Network.
Environment @ HRC50
From climate change, business and human rights, to women’s human rights, the environment agenda is present at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, taking place in Geneva and online from 13 June to 8 July.
About this Session
Rights holders face great challenges in asserting their human rights, when it comes to climate change, in having climate related human rights violations recognized as such, in having policies to protect these rights explicitly implemented, starting with prevention policies, and in having effective remedies available and activable, at the closest and most relevant level.
The UN Human Rights Council has been able to develop over the last decades, both through its own normative work and through the activities of its Special Procedures and other subsidiary bodies, preventive and protective approaches in various fields.
How can this experience benefit the people facing climate related challenges? How does human rights strengthen both preventive and protection measures? How can they be easily activated by the people concerned? Which are the urgencies and priorities for these people and communities? These are the questions we want to ask and explore during this event.
The creation of a Special Rapporteur on the human rights challenges of climate change is a great opportunity to deepen the subject and improve the protections that people affected by climate change need right now, on the ground.
Special Rapporteur on climate change
Senior Researcher, Disability Rights, Human Rights Watch
International Advocacy Director & Deputy Executive Director, Franciscans International
Herman VAN BREEN
International Policy and Advocacy Officer, International Movement ATD Fourth World
Senior Legal Adviser & UN Representative, International Commission of Jurists
Malaita Island, in Solomon Islands
Disabled Writer, Vancouver, Canada
Central African Republic
Head, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), Sri Lanka
Tara Agriculture camp, Kalonda Ward, Zambia
Here are several highlights of the event from our Twitter.
Taking place now!
— GENeva Environment Network (@GENetwork) June 24, 2022
The event begins with testimonies of people’s experiences as they face the challenges of climate change.
The Sinking Community | Testimony from Lilisiana Community on Malaita, Solomon Islands
A community with a growing population of children and youth, the Lilisiana community in Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands has observed the increasing frequency of high tide in their community, growing at an unstable rate every year. As sea level rise affect their everyday lives, the video aims to ask, “Who is responsible?”
Statement by Gabrielle Peters at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) on November 5, 2021
Spring Hawes of Human Rights Watch reads the words of Gabrielle Peters.
Disabled people won’t survive climate change if it isn’t in the plan for us to do so, and you can’t plan for us without us. I need you to reassure me that the plan isn’t for us to die to lighten the lifeboat. How many times have we seen environmental policies fail to apply a disability lens offloading the burden onto disabled people and robbing us of what little accessibility we have?
We need leaders to commit to working with us to create disability-led plans to lessen and address the impacts of climate change we can and must create a future that celebrates and supports all human life we must leave no one behind.
— Gabrielle Peters
Barclay et Cyndie, Centrafrique – ATD Quart Monde
Introduction | Herman Van Breen, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, International Movement ATD Fourth World
For 30 years, the UN has recognized the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October as an occasion for people who have lived in persistent poverty to speak out and be heard as actors of change and human rights. On 17 October 2021, the commemoration at the UN in New York was marked by this short video, where Barclay from Central African Republic who took the initiative and decided on the scenario, images and the message that protecting the earth and those who suffer from persistent poverty must go hand-in-hand.
The Paris Agreement included the requirement to embed climate action in poverty eradication and the Glasgow Climate Pact recognizes the need to ensure just transition that promotes sustainable development and eradication of poverty.
It is urgent to translate these commitments into recommendations, guidelines, rules, mandates, procedures, financing and evaluation mechanisms related to climate change. This is indeed urgent as we continue to give a green light to foreign powers to impoverish its natural resources and its population, as it is in Central African Republic and elsewhere.
Many of the families are still living in suffering because of the disaster… We must unite, listen to each other, work together for the future of our children and of all of us.
Herman Kumara | Head, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), Sri Lanka
Calling from Sri Lanka, Herman also represents the World Forum of Fishers People whose members come from fishing communities.
Fishing is one of the worst hit due to climate crisis, as one of the major threats to our lives is extreme weather conditions, such as cyclones in Asia and the Pacific.
Our people face displacement, property destruction and our houses are being washed away. We are losing our fishing gears which will have serious effects on our livelihoods because once something decides to happen there is no proper compensation process by the States, who are responsible for these types of measures. People continue to remain in camps for the internally displaced for long periods of time without having proper mechanisms to resettle in safer places with proper food, water facilities, basic needs, electricity and so on. The education of children have also been affected.
Apart from the sea level rise due to climate change, sea erosion due to water’s invasion into land is affecting coastal communities, losing our fishing gear and our homes. We became climate victims without having adequate compensation
Moreover, a vast number of people are being displaced because of marine protected areas. Decisions on the matter come from the top, without proper consultation and dialogue, and without having free prior and informed consent about these so-called development activities among fishing communities.
There are historical reasons of this: imperialism and colonialism have caused serious damage and are the major reasons behind all these. How far States are ready to address this issue is one of the biggest problems. They need to be accountable.
In 2014, one of the major achievements was to address these issues as a global fisher community because fisher people are the worst affected with this climate crisis. There are the voluntary guidelines for small scale fishing. They propose the disaster risk reduction and climate change mitigations in fishing communities, based on the human rights approach. We urge from the expert panel to consider how we make our States to be accountable.
Violet Misika | Tara Agriculture camp, Kalonda Ward, Zambia
Traveling from her village, Violet speaks from the CARE Zambia office. A single woman and mother of seven, she has stayed in her community, in the town of Kalomo for about 52 years. She speaks on specific experiences of climate change impacts and human rights.
In recent years I have seen the change in the rainy season which used to start from early November to December. Nowadays it starts in late November to mid-December. This implies a shorter farming season and low production in our community. Rivers which used to flow nearly every year throughout the year, nowadays finishes between March and April. As a result, we do not have enough food.
Another problem we face is that, as women and girls in our tradition, we fetch out to get water to use in the family. Nowadays, people are struggling to get drinking water in the few water points.
The future of my children and ultimately of the community is uncertain because of the factors I have mentioned, due to the climate change. Therefore, we report these to the government and other partners who have come to our aid by promoting climate change programs, like what CARE does for our community by in investing water harvesting, constructing open communal dams that can benefit both human and livestock, protect forest and water sources. We also help the community in adaptation through livelihood income generation activities especially for women.
Emina Ćerimović | Senior Researcher, Disability Rights, Human Rights Watch
Extreme heat flooding wildfires and other disasters are all becoming more intense and more frequent and are taking a mounting toll on human rights of people around the world. Extreme weather affects everyone but they are especially hard on populations that are already marginalized or at risk including people with disabilities and older people. In addition to focusing on how climate change is impacting people with disabilities’ human rights. We are also investigating the impact it has on older people as seen in the released reports of OHCHR in 2020 on people with disabilities, and in 2021 on older people. Mandated by the Human Rights Council, the reports highlighted that these two groups are at increased risk of adverse impacts of climate change including threats to the right to life, to health, to food, water, sanitation, and livelihoods.
Results from research conducted at Human Rights Watch on the impacts of the heat dome in Canada on people with disabilities:
- 79% of people who died were people ages 65 and older. A year later, there’s still no reporting on how many of the older people who have died also had a disability or any other data on the impacts of last year’s extreme heat on people with disabilities.
- Social isolation and socio-economic factors such as disproportionate rates of poverty compounded all the problems that people faced. Almost all people interviewed had difficulties coping with the heat lived in subsidized housing and poverty.
- The heat dome and lack of government response impacted people’s physical and mental health where many people describe being in fear for their life.
The human rights procedure that are available should be used to protect the rights of people with disabilities and older people. It’s important to mention the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) which is the only human rights treaty that requires States to ensure the protection and safety of people with disabilities in situations of risk, including the occurrence of natural disasters. The Convention is a really strong instrument: it has been ratified by 185 countries and the provision on protection and safety can be found in Article 11. The committee on its implementation – a body of independent experts the monitors the implementation of the CRPD at the UN level – has an important role to play and should step up to ensure Article 11 is implemented.
Article 11 could be read and interpreted to include a human rights obligation to implement mitigation and adaptation policies that would their ensure safety and protection. However, recent research published by McGill University and International Disability Alliance found that less than one third of State parties to the Paris Agreement mentioned disability in their climate policies. Even when they do, it is mostly broad in nature, noting just the vulnerability of people with disabilities, whereas people with disabilities have their own coping mechanisms, are put in a vulnerable situation, and also have a lot to contribute to this discussion.
The CRPD committee should pay specific attention to the national climate policies inclusive of people with disabilities. UN bodies and governments should consider the disproportionate impact of climate change on people with disabilities and older people. Governments should develop climate mitigation adaptation policies that will prevent and minimize the adverse impacts. People with disabilities, older people and representative organizations should be meaningfully involved in developing climate mitigation and adaptation policies, in the spirit of “Nothing about us without us.”
All information should be accessible: we should make sure that information is accessible for people who are blind, for people who have hearing disabilities, for people who need easy to read versions of different reports.
We need systems-level change on the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people. As seen during conflicts and other crises, without a dedicated awareness and targeted indicators on people with disabilities and older people, they will continue to be an afterthought.
Sandra Epal-Ratjen | International Advocacy Director & Deputy Executive Director, Franciscans International
It is important to think of the UN human rights system as a system that an important role to play in ensuring a better recognition of human rights violations linked to climate change and thus ensuring better access to justice for people affected.
In general, the more the system produces these UN human rights systems, experts and committees – such as thematic reports that establish the link between climate change and human rights – the more we can use them to work around the difficulty of providing this causality link between climate change and human rights violations. Addressing the challenge of providing this link, thematic reports that recognize the nexus between climate change and human rights violations and challenges contribute to make our work a bit more a bit easier.
In the same vein, all these reports and pronouncements from the international community through this UN system that show such linkages give an added layer of legitimacy. Not that human rights defenders need legitimacy for their work but it adds this layer of legitimacy for those who fight against climate change and climate injustice. It’s a very important element not just to show that it’s about justice and rights but because it can also trigger very practical protection mechanisms for them both at national and international levels.
The system also offers ways to react urgently or specifically in individual cases of violations of rights. We have the possibility to mobilize the system through Special Rapporteurs and experts who can send allegation letters and urgent appeals in cases of rights violations in the context of climate change. This is a very important mechanism that can be triggered and mobilized when violations are about to happen or when they have happened already. Their visits to countries and to specific communities and people are important avenues to make the system more accessible, to make the situations on the ground much more visible.
There are similar options as well with the treaty bodies who may have interim measures.
- Highlighting one of the mechanisms apart from CRPD committee, we also have the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination who has early warning measures and urgent procedures mechanisms that can be accessed relatively easily, with an example from Canada concerning the lack of free prior and informed consent in the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project and coastal gas link pipeline in the territory of indigenous people in the West of Canada.
- The pronouncement of these bodies in general and procedures are key not only to address specific cases but as well as address key structural issues that are underlying these situations. In two cases of litigation, there is a mechanism that is also available with these treaty bodies and committees in the UN. We see that in the case of the human rights committee’s communication in a case (Teitiota vs. New Zealand) of a Kiribati who was sent back to Kiribati by New Zealand where he had sought asylum because of climate change effects on his island in Tarawa. The committee didn’t find favor in his particular case but did say that it recognizes that in certain places, the lack of alternatives to subsistence livelihoods may place individuals at a heightened risk of vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change. The committee also recognized that the effect of climate change may expose individuals to a violation of their rights to life and to freedom from torture. Though it did not bring justice directly in the specific case, such pronouncements are very important.
- The Child Rights Committee (CRC) has adopted a ruling in a case versus several countries including Grance and Germany that was adopted in September 2021, launched by 16 children from different parts of the world, denouncing a failure to prevent and mitigate climate change versus their right to life, health, culture in conjunction with best interests of the child. The communication failed on admissibility because the committee found that the children and their lawyers have not exhausted domestic remedies but had concluded that the children had sufficiently justified the foreseeability of the violations of their rights resulting from acts and omissions by State parties to reduce carbon emissions originating within their territory.
- We also have the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – peer-to-peer State review – that has potential. However, we are still lacking clear recommendations to big emitters. We also need to not only look on adaptation but also on mitigation, loss and damage, as well as finance. We should also work more so that um the consideration is also on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and how UPR recommendations can help to bring human rights in them.
Finally, on the aspect of prevention, we can try to contribute to prevention of harm and of violations of of human rights. We need to acknowledge the important role um in terms of policy guidance including on national budgets that UN bodies can play, especially when SRs when going on mission to countries can comment on legislation through your communications with governments. They really have a powerful tool to improve policies and have a more general advisory role at OHCHR. For instance, with initiatives where economists and human rights people work together to advise states how they can better shape their economic policies and financial policies.
There are also expectations on Special Rapporteurs, especially on climate change and human rights, to contribute to policy coherence in mainstreaming human rights into international negotiations, including ones on climate. But as we have seen with FAO guidelines example, mainstreaming of human rights and its principles of transparency and meaningful participation in this negotiation can be advocated through the mandate. You can empower people to be part of these negotiations.
The system is not only what it is on paper, but it is what we make out of them. So we have to be smart and work across all levels, local, national and international. Otherwise, all the colleagues who spoke today will have issues to accessing the system.
Massimo Frigo | Senior Legal Adviser & UN Representative, International Commission of Jurists
The challenge today is to protect the environment but particularly to fight climate change. How do we make States or any actor that is causing climate change accountable? This is where we have to look at the legal framework we have today.
The issue is that throughout time the legal framework has developed in different ways in a sense. We have been used to think in a compartmentalized way, where climate change is something only for environmental laws. It’s very complicated so human rights lawyers always have often stayed out of it. Twenty years ago, a movement started in the Americas with the rights of indigenous people, with groups that are most affected by violations. Now, we have a crisis that affects everyone and we start to see this with the decisions mentioned.
There is a more powerful argument of why the human rights legal framework is important and it is important because it is applicable to everyone to different extents. All States have ratified or have entered obligations and can be useful in different ways. It can be useful in enabling people to claim any violations that may affect them linked to climate change – protection of the right to freedom of expression, including access to information on projects that may harm or impact the environment project. We can use human rights law for access to courts through the right of a trial and the right to an effective remedy to keep to people accountable.
ICJ conducted research to try marrying the work of environmental lawyers and human rights lawyers. For example, in Türkiye (ICJ 2022), we discovered that one of the main obstacles was the [lack of] possibility to access the judiciary, the [lack of] possibility for victims, for associations protecting the environment to access courts or claim access to information, to try to fight for having accountability in terms of companies projects state projects – all these also known as instrumental rights.
The legal framework allows for everyone to be an actor in climate change. The urgency of the situation does not allow us to just wait for States or companies do their own homework; we all need to act in a legal framework that works to protect those rights.
Question now is, “Which rights do we want to protect?” An example of a landmark decision on the case Urgenda vs. Netherlands (2019) can illustrate this: the Dutch Supreme Court found that the right to life the right to family and life were not respected by the government because it had not been courageous enough in respecting the parameters of the Paris agreement. This hasn’t created a detailed obligation for the government, but it has created a transparent and accountable framework for which climate change action by the government may be undertaken.
It is not adversarial but creates a predictable legal framework of obligations. We have also seen this in economic, social and cultural rights. The way the right to health or the right to housing is implemented is through the legal framework. It allows predictability and it allows other States to understand better what to do.
Through this legal system, we create a dialogue among potential victims, civil society and the States to progress faster in fighting climate change. To do so, we need to start to have human rights expertise and environmental expertise to understand each. We welcome this development and I strongly invite the Special Rapporteurs is to try to understand how the content of human rights obligation can be interpreted through the lenses, not only from the environmental standard, but also the environmental needs. How can the right to life be interpreted to make measures to fight climate change? How can the right to family life, the right to health be interpreted that will be able assist victims and civil society, while having States and companies under the business and human rights framework to have measures of the obligation through which to act?
Special Rapporteur on Climate Change, Ian Fry
Two questions for SR Climate: in the perspective of the needs and progress made within the legal culture, how do you see your mandate strengthen the process within and even move the different human rights institutions?
Just like issues of persons with disabilities, we have a long list of issues which are not really taken on board within the UNFCCC process when they are making decisions, even if they will directly affect the rights of the people. How do you see your mandate able to act upon it?
Regarding the second question, there are already such good examples from the testimonies. The concept of a heat dome is a totally new concept. The issue of people with disability being stuck in these circumstances is quite extraordinary. Near where I live, people experienced severe flooding, and people who died were people with disabilities because they couldn’t escape.
We saw with Barclay’s example the issue of this crossover of impacts of deforestation and extraordinary weather events brought about by climate change multiplying this effect. We saw sea level rise flooding villages in the Solomon Islands and I’ve seen that for myself in Tuvalu where it is a “creeping problem”. We also saw from Violet problems associated with women, such as rainy seasons.
These are growing and new phenomena and where we’re only starting to realize the connection between the impacts on human rights and the issues of climate change. There is really a need to draw attention to these issues in the human rights field and make that connection with the climate change negotiations.
We’ve traditionally seen the human rights area as particular impacts, and now we’re seeing an issue of a global impact affecting the rights of people, particularly of rights holders in vulnerable situations – a new overlay of a global problem. Human rights treaty bodies now have to deal with this global problem rather than individual issues, creating new perception and complexity to deal with.
In the same arena, looking at the climate change bodies, there has been traditional pushback on the consideration of human rights. I was involved in negotiating the Paris agreement; working with colleagues to ensure that human rights were incorporated was a struggle because a number of people couldn’t see the relevance of that issue. In the last few days, having meetings with various countries who have traditionally opposed my mandate, [I was] trying to get an understanding from them of why they were concerned about that issue. I think I have been able to bridge some of those concerns.
This will be a main part of my work: to make that link between the human rights aspect and climate change. To get people to understand that we’re in a dramatically changing world and we have to realize that human rights are a major part of this dialogue on climate change. Using this analogy, we have two parallel universes, one deals with climate change in Bonn and of human rights issues, and they don’t often talk to each other. A major part of my work is trying to bridge those two universes and bring those views together, including powerful messages that come from these stories of people on the ground that cannot be ignored. That’s a critical part of my work that I’ll try and do my best to bring these into such arenas.
Comment from Herman Van Breen: We can and should listen to people who are not heard, the hardest hit by the climate change.
To take into account their experience, intelligence and strategies in front of multiple crisis situations where poverty, exploitation, dehumanization discrimination, social and institutional maltreatment come together.
We really support your mandate because it’s a major opportunity to prevent the already ongoing climate apartheid by giving voice and organizing direct participatory dialogues and processes with people who are already worst impacted today by climate change. Reaching the furthest behind first in the design, implementation and monitoring can become one of the most promising ways for all human rights centered climate action.
Ian Fry: This is a critical point. We tend to work in ivory towers within the these negotiations on climate change and in the human rights arena, and people are being left out of discussions. The next COP is being held in a fancy resort which costs a lot of money to stay at, and the people whose you know we need to hear their stories are not going to be able to make it. We have to explore ways of bringing those messages to the people that count.
I heard from some gender groups from Colombia who said the best form of communication they have with the people in remote areas is through their phones. They don’t have enough money to make videos, but they can send WhatsApp messages, where we maybe have to create a special communication app as a way of bringing the voices from the ground.
Q from Yves Lador: Does this mean we could have an event like this COP-27?
I certainly hope so and I look forward to us having this COP, having it in a format where we can bring the voices from the outside.
Q from Violet Misika: Is there any plan for us in Zambia where we have requested water to help us so that we can do agriculture throughout the year to reduce the problems or brought by the climate change?
Ian Fry: Zambia is very prominent in climate change as I’ve seen working with colleagues in least developed countries, including Zambia. The issues around the problem of negotiating loss and damage is that there is a strong pushback by some key developed countries to have a proper and reasonable dialogue on loss and damage. I certainly hope that I can use my mandate to draw attention to the issues that people are facing on the ground like your situation to really clearly identify the human costs that are being affected by climate change now, and bring that to these international meetings.
Sandra Epal-Ratjen: This question struck me because we are talking about different levels of actions, and what we have been discussing today is this kind of need for long-term actions. We have all tried to show that the system can be mobilized rather quickly but still though it is what is right, it will not bring water to farmers like Violet. On top of everything, it is important to fix the structural issues, we need political will, et cetera… but we also need commitment of countries and in particular those with the means to support with urgent aid.
It’s very evident but I think more than ever we need countries to be in solidarity, and we need a lot of aid. We need a lot of support including from UN agencies.
Massimo Frigo: From the point of view of a lawyer, it is problematic that [the solutions] will arrive mid- and long-term, whereas the emergency is right now. There are ways in which the human rights system can do something with injury measures, among others. However, on tackling the issue of climate change effectively in the immediate term, expectations are probably on the low end.
The element of thinking about the future generation is very important, to think that human rights struggles, the use of human rights law we are doing at the international level in the middle to long term is important. It’s also because we need to start thinking with certain categories from the environmental arena, like the intergenerational principle, a concept that says we need to look at the impact also that is going to be on future generations. These are all foreign concepts for human rights lawyers, but we need urgently to start to get this on the minds of decision makers. This is kind of the slow term work which needs to be done fast but with results in five or ten years. Every effort that can be done on that side will bear fruit.
As human rights lawyers, we have to basically sit down and learn from all the victims from all the testimonies. We should take a step back and understand what’s the impact, and see that the urgency is now.
Q from Emina Ćerimović: How is the Special Rapporteur’s office trying to understand and planning to include people with disabilities and older people in the work he is planning to do?
It was good to hear that he mentioned the flooding last year in Germany where 12 people with disabilities who lived in institutions died because they were not ever rescued on time. We would also remind everyone that last year there was big news because a minister was not able to participate at COP because of lack of accessibility. We have to make sure that these please these spaces are accessible to people with disabilities. It made news last year because it was a minister, but we have to also remember that it is reality for people with disabilities on a daily basis. They are denied participation because of lack of accessibility.
I want to highlight this as the next COP is already inaccessible because of how costly it is, but also how we are going to make sure that it is physically accessible and otherwise successful to people with disabilities.
Herman van Breen: On the question of participation from people who are the most and first hit by climate change, we have the experience with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, Olivier De Schutter, to have participatory dialogues with people in different regions that enlightened a lot his reports on persistent poverty. There are ways of having strong and quality dialogues with people all over the world with Special Rapporteurs to be considered.
Ian Fry: Responding to Massimo on the issue of access to courts as a fundamental issue, I have certainly identified that as one of the issues I want to deal with particularly for children and youth getting access to courts. I’d be happy to collaborate with you as much as possible to see how we can enshrine that principle.
The other key principle I want to focus on with this theme of youth is intergenerational equity. We have to provide the provisions, the law to ensure that the courts are aware of the principle of intergenerational justice as a fundamental element of a human right.
With respect to what Emina has said, this issue of accessibility is a critical one and we just have to find ways of dealing with this. I used to be on the bureau of the climate change Secretariat and it was always the difficulty we had in trying to get them to accept the fact that where they decide on the locations of these COPs is becoming a competition, a sort of beauty contest almost. Because of the costs, the COPs are becoming less and less accessible. I’ll keep bringing that message to the climate change people and let’s explore all these innovative ways of accessibility.
I thank Herman for his ideas, and I had a discussion with Olivier about the participatory dialogues. Hopefully, I’ll be able to initiate similar processes with my mandate.
In addition to the live WebEx and social media transmissions, the video of the event is available on this webpage.
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change at HRC50 (advanced unedited version)
- Presentations made during the event
- A toolbox – Human Rights, Migration, Sustainable Development and Climate Policies: Connecting the Dots | Franciscans International, 2021
- The state of access to justice to protect human rights and environment in Turkey | ICJ, March 2022
- Analytical study on the rights of older persons in the context of climate change | OHCHR | April 2021
- Analytical study on the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change | OHCHR | April 2020