Human Rights in the Climate Talks

Human rights and climate crisis might not be an obvious connection. Sea level rise might mean living nearer the coast, warmer temperatures sound like a nicer summer, regional bananas produced in the Global North sound yummy – that might be the first thing people care of if they hear the term „Global Warming“. But digging a little bit deeper into this topic we see the very serious consequences. Basically one can differ between primary, secondary and tertiary consequences. Examples are the following:

“Primary signs include the acute and chronic stress of heat waves, and trauma from increased bush fires and flooding. Secondary signs are indirect, such as an altered distribution of arthropod vectors, intermediate hosts and pathogens that will produce changes in the epidemiology of many infectious diseases. More severe future health consequences of climate change are classified here as tertiary effects.”[1]

Human rights include the access to water, rights to food, to health, to housing, and to a healthy environment, and even the to self-determination and to life. Climate change reduces the availability of water, changing weather patterns reduce the food production and therefore restrict the access to food, more extreme weather patterns can destroy houses, ocean acidification can by lead to fewer fishes and therefore affect the livelihood of people and force them by this to move.

The risen importance of human rights can also be found in the past. The Human Rights Council   – despite its double standards regarding Israel, which are worthy to be condemned –worked in last eight years on this issue. Until now, several resolutions have been established, which clearly recognize that climate change undermines human rights.

The UNFCCC has in its Article 2 the aim to “ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”. [2] This is centred on persons firstly and secondly reflects the right of food and thirdly a right to economic development. Article 3.1 of the convention also recognizes the needs of current and future generations. [3]

Since the adoption of the Convention the aspects of human rights arose more and more in the negotiations. One example is COP 16, which took place 2010 in Cancun. In the decision, the following sentence is mentioned: “Parties should, in all climate change related actions, fully respect human rights”. [4]

On the other hand, human rights are just human rights in general. Moreover, there are also specific human rights, which are mentioned in several decisions of the climate talks. Especially gender equity – or at least “gender sensitivity” – came up as a point during the last years.[5] Also the need to protect vulnerable groups has been ensured several times.[6]

The current negotiation text for the Paris agreement considers: human rights (incl. right to development), the participation of communities and NGOs, gender, indigenous peoples, and social considerations.

Human rights are so far considered in the Preamble (Section A of the draft), the General Objective (Section C) and in the part of Adaptation and Loss & Damage (Section E).

All in all human rights are mentioned seven times. Three times they are mentioned in the preamble – in the context of “stressing”, “noting” and “recognizing”. From these words action can’t be interfered. However, it is most important to get human rights in the operationalizing language. One time they are mentioned in the section regarding adaption and Loss & Damage – in the context of nationally determined adaptation commitments, states shall “promote and protect” them. But most importantly is the General Objective, Section C, as it is cross-cutting with all the other following topics. Human Rights need to be in every Section excluding A-C (Preamble, Definitions and General Objective) or in Section C (General Objective)

This section has undergone a very basic streamlining. The current negotiations have the aim to “consolidate” text. This means to give it stringency, not to change the exact wording in sense of lost content. Since the beginning of this week there has not been much progress regarding human rights. In the first reading of this Section two Parties at least mentioned human rights directly. Despite this, there are rumours of background discussions about changing the wording regarding human rights. Paragraph 15 of the draft agreement is currently the following:

“15. [All Parties [and stakeholders] shall [ensure respect for human rights and gender equality in the implementation of the provisions of this agreement] [, in all climate change related actions, respect, protect, promote, and fulfil human rights for all. All Parties shall be guided by gender equality and ensure the full and equal participation of women in all climate actions and decision-making processes. All Parties should consider in their climate policies and actions a just transition of the workforce that creates decent work and quality jobs.]] [All Parties shall implement this agreement, in line with the mandate, principles and provisions of the UNFCCC, to protect the integrity of Mother Earth, respect and promote human rights, the right to development and the rights of indigenous peoples.]”[7]

Firstly the Parties, meaning the countries, “shall” do something. This is quite a strong language, compared with “should”, which would make actions on the mentioned topic voluntary. The mentioned topics are, inter alia, human rights. Parties shall “ensure respect”, “respect, protect, promote, and fulfil” or “respect and promote” human rights. Each of this option would currently lead to actions which would ensure human rights.

Above the connection between human rights and the climate crisis is explained. But to have human rights mentioned in international law offers two possibilities: First, if the signed document is legally binding, the protection of human rights is it, too. A reference to human rights in a legal treaty coming out of Paris would be legally binding only if it is in the core text of the agreement, not in the preamble. If human rights are in the preamble only, this legally bindingness would not exist for human rights. A reference in the preamble is therefore no major step forward. Secondly it offers a new channel for much stronger communication, urging states to protect human rights. Connected with the right of future generations, also known as “Intergenerational Equity”, this offers a pressure point – a pressure point to push for an ambitious agreement.


[2] UNFCCC 1992, Article 2

[3] UNFCCC 1992, Article 3.1

[4] UNFCCC 2010, Decision 1/CP.16

[5] UNFCCC 2011, Decision 5/CP.17 and UNFCCC 2014, Decision 18/CP.20

[6] UNFCCC 2012, Decision 5/CP.17 and UNFCCC 2012, Decision 3/CP.18.

[7] UNFCCC 2015, Negotiating Text

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