Human rights should be center of climate crisis action, new movement says

Environmental advocates join Washington, D.C.-area students at a school strike for the climate protest. Photo by: REUTERS / Leah Millis

NEW YORK — A new movement of more than 200 representatives of indigenous people and leading environmental and human rights organizations is mobilizing to bridge the gap between human rights and climate change.

“There are enormous gaps in that area and there are increasing numbers of countries that are saying that they do not accept that ‘climate refugees’ are real refugees,” Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told Devex.

“The centerpiece of climate change and the climate emergency is the impact on human lives.”

— Craig Mokhiber, New York director, U.N. Rights Office

“It really is creating no-man’s lands for many people. There is increasing statelessness in many places around the world, and I do not think the human rights community is really facing those challenges,” Alston continued.

The first Peoples’ Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival is taking place in New York Sept. 18-19 and is backed by the U.N. Human Rights Office, Greenpeace International, Amnesty International, Center for International Environmental Law, and others. Leaders of the organizations made a call on Wednesday for governments to make hard, tangible commitments on climate change during the Climate Action Summit at U.N. Headquarters on Sept. 23.

“If this summit ends up being just another rhetorical exchange then I think you can say it is not a success. Whether it is a success is going to depend on concrete new commitments,” Craig Mokhiber, New York director at the U.N. Rights Office, said during a Wednesday press briefing.

“Success means new, much more ambitious, extremely concrete commitments to actually reduce emissions significantly, to give some teeth in the form of regulation and finance and to begin to address the root causes of the crisis we find ourselves in,” Mokhiber continued.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called this week for public pressure to spark more government action on what he called a climate change “emergency.” Guterres announced a new initiative, “Climate Action for Jobs,” aimed at making job creation a key part of countries’ work on climate action. The new initiative will roll out during the Climate Action Summit.

Government and institutional recognition of the need to address climate change as an issue of humanity, and human rights, is improving slowly, but with increasing speed, according to Carroll Muffett, president and CEO at the Center for International Environmental Law.

“We are seeing more and more institutions that are addressing these realities for the simple reason that they can no longer ignore it. It is much later than we had hoped, but it is happening and it has to happen faster,” Muffett said during the press briefing.

About 265.3 million people were displaced internally as a result of disasters between 2008 and 2018, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. People displaced by climate change are often called “climate migrants” or “environmentally displaced persons,” but do not have the rights guaranteed to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The movement is using its meeting in New York to determine the next practical steps it will take. This will likely include increased national coordination across organizations on climate change and human rights, Amnesty International Secretary-General Kumi Naidoo said during the media briefing.

Mokhiber called the summit a “marriage of movements” to amplify a public call to action.

“The international human rights movement is not about law. It is a social movement about power, about making demands on power ... as important as it is, polar bears and ice caps are not the whole story. The centerpiece of climate change and the climate emergency is the impact on human lives,” Mokhiber said.

Recognition of climate change as an increasingly pressing human rights issue varies from country to country, United Nations’ Alston told Devex. During his recent country trip to Malaysia, he observed little recognition of climate change.

“What I saw there is almost no awareness of climate change, even though it is an area which is potentially very vulnerable to floods, fires, and various other phenomena,” Alston said. “But there is very little being done to that end for what is going to happen and very little creation of awareness. Certainly, I think the mass migration of people is going to come as a real shock.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.