Climate justice not on the menu in Bonn

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Indigenous Leader and member of the Climate Action Leadership Network, attends a panel discussion during the UN Climate Change Conference COP23 in Bonn, Germany. [Philipp Guelland/EPA]

Climate activists and indigenous leaders gathered last week (16 November) to raise awareness about the human rights aspect of climate action. They lamented the lack of substance in climate talks, while people are already dying due to the direct effects of climate change.

“Our work in responding to climate change must put people first. It must be fair, just, and enable a transition to a better way of living”, said Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji and president of COP23, in the opening speech.

The link between global warming and human rights is self-evident, although not recognised politically: climate change threatens essential resources like water and food on which communities depend – putting in question their very right to life. There are on average 22.8 million people a year displaced by adverse climatic events.

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However, human rights don’t have much space in climate talks. In 2015 for the first time, and under pressure from civil society, countries included a reference to human rights in the preamble to the Paris Agreement:

“Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”

But Agnes Leina Ntikaampi, a speaker for indigenous groups, said that this is not sufficient: “It is too little and too late. Communities are being trampled over like ants.”

Countries’ obligations to respect human rights are often bypassed by economic development priorities. In one year, 116 defenders of human rights and social justice died while working to protect their homes and environment this year– an average of four a week.

Mary Robinson, former Irish president and founder of a foundation for climate justice, advocates for a stronger focus on rights in the climate work of the UN: expanding from the technical areas of adaptation, mitigation and finance and including a unit that would look at respect for human rights in climate action.

According to Edgar Gutiérrez, former environment minister in Costa Rica and president of the UN Environment Assembly, human rights should be enshrined further in key texts of climate change negotiations, by for instance including them into Nationally Determined Contributions (countries’ individual pledges), and by ensuring that all climate-change adaptation and mitigation projects (dams, solar or wind farms, etc) seeks the free and informed consent of local communities before being implemented.

In the outcome text of this year’s climate talks, it is acknowledged that countries “should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.”

A small victory for indigenous communities, who have been striving for decades to join the climate negotiations. Annabella Rosenberg, of the international trade union confederation, said: “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. We deserve that space.”

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