During the first week at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, the UN special representative on human rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued statements expressing support for ensuring human rights are referenced throughout the COP21 framework (in paragraphs on adaptation, mitigation and climate finance), and not only in the agreement’s preamble.
It is essential for the Paris agreement to ensure that the rights of those at most risk to climate change are respected under climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes, something HelpAge International supported in its report, Climate Change in an Ageing World, released this week.
Older people are disproportionately affected by climate change, being more vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures and at greater risk of dying in extreme weather events, making it all the more important that adaptation and mitigation strategies address their rights to food, water and security; all of which are threatened by climate change.
One key section in the draft agreement, Article 2.1, which has faced tremendous opposition by countries including the United Kingdom, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the United States has now been removed.
This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, and in accordance with the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, and on the basis of respect for human rights and the promotion of gender equality and the right of peoples under occupation.
This was the only article within the framework which would have ensured governments commit to protecting and respecting human rights through climate change strategies. Earlier in the discussions, text calling for the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights was also cut.
Existing human rights frameworks tend to focus on rights of the individual – the right to education, freedom of expression and a fair trial, but indigenous peoples have additional collective rights - the right to self-determination, to their ancestral lands and to free prior and informed consent before development initiatives are implemented in their ancestral territory.
These principles should be respected under the COP21 framework if it is to be successfully implemented. Indigenous peoples’ territories currently overlap with many of the remaining areas of biodiversity which need to be protected in order to achieve nationally determined mitigation commitments. In addition, indigenous peoples and local communities have a wealth of knowledge on forest ecology, traditional forest and agroforestry management practices.
Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, said: “Human rights in general and indigenous people’s rights in particular should not be traded away in Paris.”
John Knox, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, also called to adopt in the final agreement a 1.5 degree Celsius target instead of 2 degrees, as even just an incremental increase would have drastic effects on human rights around the world.
“It’s clear, and many governments have been making the case, that in order to fulfil their human rights obligations, governments should be pursuing the lowest possible target, meaning a 1.5 instead of a 2 degree target, and should recognize that in the text,” said Knox.
What happens now in relation to Human Rights within COP21?
There is still a remaining reference to human rights within the opening sections of the agreement, which are non-binding in nature. This text calls for the recognition that “when developing policies and taking action to address climate change, parties should promote, protect, respect, and take into account their respective obligations on all human rights, the right to health, and the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and under occupation, and the right to development, and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
While it is important to have human rights and indigenous rights acknowledged within the text, its removal from the main body of the text represented a huge missed opportunity to realise the rights of the people most impacted by climate change within current and future strategies.
It is also concerning that older people and their rights, given the disproportionate impact climate change is likely to continue to have on them, are given no specific consideration anywhere within the text, even within the list of those whose rights should be specifically taken into account.
We should all echo the calls of both UN special rapporteurs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to oppose this watering down of the agreement, as well as reaffirm the need to consider human rights including those of older people and those of indigenous peoples in the hope of seeing a fair, effective and legally binding climate change agreement. This will serve as guidance for strong effective national strategies that leave no one behind.