Photo by: COP24

KATOWICE, Poland — Activists at the climate negotiations marked International Human Rights Day Monday by sounding the alarm over the removal of language from draft guidelines that would encourage protection of human rights within national climate change strategies.

They are concerned that without the guarantees, future development projects that benefit from new climate-related financing mechanisms might move forward without consulting the very communities their construction might affect.

“Human rights are not there to stand in the way of climate action. They are there to make sure when you have an economic activity, you do it in a way that has considered human rights implications.”

—  Sébastien Duyck, Center for International Environmental Law

Negotiators at the COP24 climate talks are racing to finalize a rulebook for countries as they draft national plans for reducing their carbon output. Known as nationally determined contributions, signatories to the Paris Agreement are required to prepare, communicate, and maintain NDCs that specify how they plan to do that beginning in 2020.

Human rights activists and allied governments and organizations hoped to include language that commits countries to ensure basic human rights protections. While language confirming commitments to protect human rights — as well as gender-based protections and the rights of indigenous communities, the elderly, and youth — had appeared in previous iterations of the guidelines, it disappeared from the latest draft — just ahead of the deadline at the end of this week for ministers to finalize the guidelines.

“This doesn’t mean the commitment to human rights disappears,” said Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law. The preamble to the Paris Agreement, around which the current rulebook is being developed, calls on countries to respect, promote, and consider human rights in their climate responses. “But we are hoping this is integrated at the planning of policy — not at the moment you have developed a policy and then you realize there’s a conflict and you’re trying to sort out the implications of it.”

Duyck said the language, introduced by Norwegian representatives, had existed as part of the guideline drafts for years, although there had always been objections. Still, its removal over the weekend shocked activists and other participants in the climate discussions, who were looking for explicit guarantees on rights to life and participation that countries could use as a benchmark as they develop their NDCs.

“We need an explicit reference to human rights in guidance for the NDCs to signal that rights are not negotiable,” John Licht, Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union and Belgium, said at a press conference. “Let us ensure they are clearly indicated in the rulebook.”

If explicit protections continue to disappear from the agreements being prepared this week, there is a worry that, in some instances, projects intended to spur development might actually wind up destabilizing poor or marginalized communities.

Duyck pointed to situations under the 1992 Kyoto Protocol where large renewable energy projects, such as hydropower dams, were constructed and ended up displacing poor communities and destroying the river’s ecosystem, robbing fishing communities of their livelihoods. Without human rights protections, he warned that investors might work with companies on projects that could be subsidized by carbon credits under new international schemes, even as they undermine vulnerable communities.

“We hope the governments will avoid ... creating new mechanisms where you have private investors going in a community, building a dam without adequate consultation, yet still claiming this access to international carbon markets,” Duyck said.

“We need an explicit reference to human rights in guidance ... to signal that rights are not negotiable.”

— John Licht, Vanuatu ambassador to the European Union and Belgium

At the moment, explicit language around human rights is included in the specific agreement around the carbon trading mechanism, which is currently being finalized, but Duyck said there is no certainty it will remain.

Even as they continue to lobby delegates, activists are already turning to the period after COP24 with an eye toward closely monitoring countries that do build considerations for human rights into their NDCs and reporting on their work — signaling to other countries that they could easily take similar steps.

“Human rights are not there to stand in the way of climate action,” Duyck said. “They are there to make sure when you have an economic activity, you do it in a way that has considered human rights implications.”

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About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.