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The UN Human Rights Council Dithers While the Earth Burns


In Niger, as elsewhere in parts of the western Sahel region, the twin crises of climate change and armed conflict threaten livelihoods of herders as pastureland is shrinking, stoking tensions. Here, a young herder is caring for a newborn calf. The essayist says it is time for the Human Rights Council to take climate change more seriously as it destabilizes the world rapidly. ICRC

GENEVA — It is time for the United Nations Human Rights Council to take climate change much more seriously than it has been and to treat the issue with the urgency, deliberation and action that it demands. The Council has the tools to do so, and it should use them now.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report clarified beyond a doubt the severity of the climate crisis attributable to greenhouse-gas emissions. “[T]he alarm bells are deafening,” according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who described the report as a “code red for humanity.” In 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet spoke of a climate emergency, and her opening statement to the Council’s 48th session last month described the situation as a “planetary” crisis. Since December 2016, more than 1,900 governments, including municipalities and cities, in 34 countries have made climate emergency declarations.

The Council adopted its first resolution on climate change, 7/23, in 2008, when the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 386.29 parts per million. Thirteen years later, when the Council adopted its most recent resolution on climate change, 47/24, in July 2021, the atmospheric concentration was 416.96 ppm. That resolution asks the secretary-general to report to the Council at its 50th session, in June 2022, on the adverse impact of climate change on the human rights of people in vulnerable situations and calls for a related panel discussion at the session. It also asks that more annual panel discussions be held on the damaging effects of climate change on human rights, starting in 2023, and it encourages discussions on the possible creation of a UN Special Procedure on climate change and human rights.

Hardly the stuff of emergency response!

Moreover, although Resolution 47/24 uses boilerplate language to call on countries to “consider . . . human rights within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” it offers no message for the climate change conference, COP26, that is being held in Glasgow in November.

A lost opportunity? Most definitely, yes!

The Council is mandated to respond promptly to human-rights emergencies. A debate that takes place once a year, even with a panel discussion that results in a routine annual resolution, is not how to address the emergency. In the words of a former special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the failure of human-rights advocates to take concerted action will render them “marginal or irrelevant to humanity’s most pressing short-, medium- and long-term challenge.”

Since 2008, Council resolutions have affirmed year after year that “human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policymaking in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes.” It is essential to translate human-rights principles and standards into pragmatic steps that can provide that coherence, legitimacy and sustainability right away.

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What else should the Council be doing? The often-hidebound body has demonstrated considerable imagination and innovation in its work during the Covid-19 pandemic, when other UN bodies almost ground to a halt. That creativity should address climate change. Meanwhile, the Council can take specific measures that follow established practices.

To start, it can convene a special session devoted to developing a program of action on climate change. Such a session would enable a more focused, thorough discussion than is possible during regular Council sessions, when climate change must compete for attention with many other issues.

Nothing limits special sessions to country situations. On May 22, 2008, the Council held a special session on the world food crisis. On Feb. 20, 2009, it had a special session on the global economic and financial crises. Russia, China, India, Eritrea and other countries that have recently resisted the discussion of climate change by the Council could not block such an initiative.

In principle, a special session should be held not earlier than two and not later than five working days after the formal receipt of the request for the meeting. Five days are not enough, and precedent for a longer preparation occurred when the Council held its special session on the world food crisis, which was done 11 working days after being requested. Moreover, with the constructive creativeness that has characterized the Council during the Covid-19 pandemic, the proper preparation of a climate change special session can be done.

The Council could ask its “think tank,” the Advisory Committee, to do much-needed groundwork on human rights and climate change. So far, the Council has not asked the committee to work on climate change. In August 2015, the committee considered a paper on climate-induced displacement but did not take the topic further. In March 2021, it proposed a study on climate geoengineering and awaits the Council’s response.

A third area where the Council could make a difference is by creating an independent expert mechanism, or a Special Procedure, dedicated to human rights and climate change. Nongovernmental organizations proposed establishing such a mechanism in 2010. And it was discussed in connection with Resolution 47/24, but it faced obstruction from Russia, India and other countries. A group of countries is taking an initiative to establish a special rapporteur at the current (48th) Council session.

Although many of the thematic Special Procedures have examined particular aspects of climate change, their specific remits prevent them from providing deep attention to human rights and climate change. A Special Procedure devoted to human rights and climate change is needed for continuity, coherence and profile. Climate change and human rights are too large and complex a problem for a single expert. A working group of five experts drawn from each of the UN’s five regions would be better, enabling a broader range of legal and technical expertise and sensitivity to regional particularities. That model was followed for the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls.

The mandate should be forward looking, pragmatic and concentrated on how to ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation measures respect, protect and fulfill human rights. There are no doubt other ways that the Human Rights Council could respond to the climate emergency. What matters most is that it acts now, with urgency, deliberation and pragmatism. The time for dithering is over.

Peter Splinter is an independent human-rights consultant. He represented Amnesty International to the United Nations in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. In that role, he was closely involved in the establishment and operation of the Human Rights Council.

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