There is no doubt that climate change has serious implications for human rights. Extreme events such as floods and tropical storms, as well as slow-onset events such as sea level rise, rising temperatures, and land and forest degradation, affect the fundamental rights of today’s global population and future generations.
A safe climate is an essential element of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Diminishing sources of drinking water affect the right to water. The destruction of crops and livestock affects the right to food. The destruction of homes affects the right to housing. Many areas are becoming uninhabitable. This will lead to internal or cross-border displacement of residents, placing them, especially children, women, and minority groups, at particular risk of human rights violations. Such impacts affect the enjoyment of the right to (mental) health and the right to livelihood. They lead to unemployment, violate the right to work, force children out of school and into work, violate the right to education and encourage child labor. Other effects include an increase in gender-based violence and threats to the right to life.
States have legal obligations to protect, promote, and fulfil human rights under international conventions and must be held accountable for these obligations. They have a duty to allocate the maximum available resources to mitigate climate change and to ensure that all people have adequate means to adapt to it. Where losses as well as damages have already occurred, effective access to remedies must be provided. International human rights mechanisms play a central role in assessing these obligations.
Climate Change and the UN Human Rights Mechanisms
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, environmental degradation and climate change were not yet issues on people’s minds. As a result, no references to them can be found in the document. In recent years, however, the international human rights mechanisms (Human Rights Council, Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, Universal Periodic Review) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with the crucial support from civil society, indigenous peoples, social movements, and local communities, have stepped up their work to recognize the impact of climate change on human rights, to identify which human rights are most affected, and to specify the legal obligations that arise for states. They are also making recommendations to states on how to address climate change in a human rights-sensitive manner. The recently established mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, appointed by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2021, demonstrates the importance and significance attached to the issue by the international human rights system.
These efforts underline the essential role the mechanisms play in interpreting and adjusting international human rights law when it comes to new and unpredicted challenges to humanity and the planet. The effectiveness of the mechanisms, however, depends greatly on the continuous support and engagement of civil society organizations regionally and on the multilateral level in Geneva. As part of such engagement the FES Geneva Office is member of the Geneva Climate Change Consultation Group (GeCCco), which brings together civil society organizations working on the interlinkages of human rights and climate change.
Integrating human rights in climate action
States need to address two basic requirements in their strategies to address climate change effectively. And these two approaches outline how human rights can be integrated into climate policy. First, in addition to substantive rights (such as the right to life, food and health), people have procedural rights to informed, free, active, and meaningful participation in public affairs. This also applies to decision-making processes on climate policy at the national, regional and international levels. States have an obligation to inform and involve everyone, especially those most affected by climate change, in such decision-making processes to ensure that mitigation, adaptation, and remediation efforts meet local needs. Only by ensuring these procedural rights in the first place will stakeholders be able to develop policies that exercise substantive human rights. Later this month, the world will gather in Dubai for the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to discuss and agree on the way forward to combat climate change. It is at such events that procedural rights must be guaranteed.
Second, under core human rights treaties, states have an obligation to act collectively to ensure the realization of human rights. As climate change is a global phenomenon, states must cooperate internationally to address its impacts. Those who have contributed the least to climate change are currently bearing its most severe consequences. States must therefore work together to share resources, knowledge, and technology in a spirit of genuine solidarity. Not only for moral or ethical reasons, but also because of their obligations under international human rights law.
Tackling climate change with human rights
Only by ensuring that human rights are mainstreamed and protected in climate policies will they ultimately lead to action that truly meets the needs on the ground. Human rights are not an additional obstacle to effective and timely climate action. On the contrary, they are its catalyst.
In summary, the human rights dimension of climate change has been recognized and identified, the obligations of states have been specified and recommendations have been developed. States, individually and collectively, must fulfil their obligations to implement human rights-based policies to close the protection gap created by climate change. There is no greater challenge facing humanity today than climate change. Rapid and ambitious action on climate change is imperative.
Celebrating 75 years of the UDHR
10 December is celebrated annually as International Human Rights Day. In 2023, in the lead up to the anniversary, the UN’s Human Rights 75 Initiative focuses on a different topic each month. November focuses on Climate change/environment. Those monthly thematic spotlights aim to inform about different issues related to human rights, to enrich discussions, and to discover concrete ways to implement different aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN High Level Event on 11-12 December is expected to lead to change and progress through concrete commitments by states and civil society organizations, and to feed into the 2024 Summit of the Future.
For further information on the celebrations of the anniversary of the UDHR: