COP24 and Human Rights - A Lost Battle?

Julia Ryng

Several months have passed since the Polish presidency jumped for joy at the conclusion of the 2018 United Nations climate conference, COP24 in Katowice, Poland. For some however, the cheerful reaction may have been premature. True, the Paris Rulebook has been finalized, meaning the aim of the COP to standardize guidelines for how countries will monitor, track and report their reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, has to an extent been achieved. Yet the multilateral talks have left many things unresolved and, from a human rights perspective, left vital issues out completely.  

Prior to the conference, human rights NGOs and activists called for the reiteration of human rights obligations in the Rulebook. The Paris Agreement was the first international treaty addressing climate change to bear any reference to human rights. Although the reference appears only in the non-legally-binding Preamble, it nonetheless signifies that human rights are seen as vital issues to consider in the international battle against climate change. The hope for COP24 was to continue the triumph of Paris and strengthen human rights guarantees in the UN climate framework. Amnesty International’s Chiara Liguori listed actions that needed to be taken to reach this goal, like adopting guidelines to the Paris Agreement that incorporate references to human rights, involving indigenous communities in decision making and ensuring a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels to renewables. Unfortunately, these actions were not performed to the standard that we hoped for.    

 The final 133 page version of the Rulebook fails to mention human rights, despite stringent criticisms by human rights groups. Red lanyards were worn by some conference members in protest to the successive elimination of all human rights references from the text. Climate Action Network and Unearthed, among other sources, are naming-and-shaming the United States and Saudi Arabia for performing legal and political gymnastics to exclude mention of the Paris preamble and, with it, human rights. Human rights supporters in particular were looking for explicit guarantees on right to life and participation, which countries could use as benchmarks to develop their nationally determined contributions (NDCs). The importance of such guarantees is stark in light of some renewable energy projects being operationalized, under the auspices of previous climate treaties, to the detriment of poor and indigenous communities. For example, the Barro Blanco Dam developed by the Panamanian government to claim carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol forced indigenous Ngaäbe people from their homes. Though thankfully this particular project was withdrawn from the credit mechanism, it set a dangerous precedent. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, spoke at Katowice of other such projects which proceeded without community consultation, stating some resulted in “indigenous peoples [being] being expelled [from the land] or worse yet, killed.” Human rights, as an empowering framework for marginalized groups, can serve as an accountability mechanism in efforts to cultivate a truly humane and ‘just’ transition into low-carbon economies.  

 A ‘just transition’ was in fact a key theme at the conference. From a human rights perspective it is a vital aim, not only in the guarantee of non-displacement of local communities and respect of indigenous rights, but also the assurance of labour rights of those employed in fossil fuel industries. The “just transition” concept must however be treated with caution. The irony of the Polish president’s call for a “just transition” while the entire country and indeed the conference building itself lives and breathes coal was not lost. Poland’s declaration that it will not give up coal signals that some nations will use the concept as a defense for protecting domestic interests. In a similar vein, although China’s announcement of clean-energy agenda has been warmly welcomed, without human rights safeguards, effective climate change action cannot be guaranteed. David Victor, the co-chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, pointed out to the New Yorker that China’s priorities lie in building local industries and sustainable economic development. If profits and individual domestic interests, rather than collective life, continue to be the driving force of progress, there is little hope of saving what is left of our planet.  

Human rights concerns featured in other areas of the conference apart from the Rulebook and the ‘just transition’ guarantees. The more positive inclusions were seen in events like intergenerational inclusion talks and a film festival featuring discussions on human rights and their relevance for climate action. The UN initiative of the ‘People’s Seat’ was also encouraging as a tool for enhancing civil society engagement in the talks. However, the positive impacts of these participation efforts have been overshadowed by the reported detainment and deportation of climate activists by Polish authorities, ban on spontaneous protests and heavy police presence at a peaceful civil march in Katowice. As such, instead of intertwining human rights into the fibres of the global climate change framework, the conference produced more questions about the commitment of the current political arena to human rights obligation.  

Yet one must not forget that COP24 and the Paris Agreement in general are but one avenue for climate change mitigation. In other global climate battles human rights have taken a far more prominent role. The UN Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Council have produced various documents emphasizing states’ human rights obligations related to environmental protection and the need to strengthen climate change laws and policies in accordance with those commitments. The successful reliance on human rights by litigants in the Dutch Urgenda case, the Irish Friends of the Irish Environment case, the EU People’s Climate case and multiple others must be celebrated as a huge win for climate action (although some argue that it is indeed this success that has made the U.S. and others push for the removal of references to human rights in the rulebook.) Even commercial entities, be it through the Global Compact initiative or individual pledges issued during COP24, are showing promise of enhancing their efforts in climate protection and in respecting human rights in their operations. We must applaud these strides, learn from them and contribute our own efforts. There is still a long and hard journey ahead of us. We must exercise our human rights to free speech and freedom of assembly (e.g. by joining movements like Extinction Rebellion) to show politicians that the electorate is demanding they fulfil their obligations. Remind them that for us all to survive they must serve their people, their country and their planet.  

Environment, Readjfa