Human rights protection hangs in balance at UN climate talks


KATOWICE, Poland – Top officials and advocates are pushing at U.N. talks in Poland to ensure governments and businesses respect human rights when working to build a green future under the Paris climate pact.

The climate change conference, due to end on Friday, is struggling to agree rules for efforts to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, a goal enshrined in the 2015 Paris accord.

One sticking point is how obligations on human rights should be incorporated into the “rule book” for implementing the Paris deal.

“Climate change already has affected the lives of so many people – the right to food because of terrible droughts, the right to live in proper ways,” U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said at the talks.

Most references to human rights have been stripped out of the text now under negotiation in Katowice, experts said.

However, it remains in clauses relating to carbon markets, although Egypt, on behalf of the Arab Group of nations, and Saudi Arabia have opposed its inclusion, they added.

The wording is key to avoid a repeat of previous rights abuses linked to carbon credits for renewable energy projects under the Kyoto Protocol, said Sebastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

The Kyoto Protocol is a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which expires in 2020 when the Paris Agreement takes off.

In Panama, the construction of a hydroelectric dam had been eligible to receive carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a scheme for rich nations to offset their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, despite displacing indigenous people, CIEL said.

The Barro Blanco Dam had forced from their homes indigenous Ngabe who lived on the site of its reservoir, said Duyck.

In 2016, builders of Barro Blanco finally withdrew the dam from the CDM, he said.

Similar problems with other CDM projects have been reported in countries including Honduras, Guatemala and Kenya.

Bachelet said her organisation had collected reports of such abuses, but relied on national human rights watchdogs for that information.

It was important to strengthen the independence of those national agencies, typically funded by governments, to ensure human rights and green development go hand in hand, she said.

It is “a political issue”, she emphasised.

Sachs lamented that links between human rights and climate change were not more central in the Paris “rule book” draft.

Wild weather – from record-breaking hurricanes to punishing floods and drought – has grown stronger around the world as the planet warms, with dramatic humanitarian consequences.

“I think the bigger issue with climate change is millions are being displaced – not because of projects but because of climate change – and so we should focus on climate change as a violation of rights,” he said.

Bringing to court those most responsible for global warming – including fossil fuel companies, a growing trend in the United States – was a large part of respecting human rights, he said.

Activists said they were running out of patience.

Standing in front of a banner reading “Protect our rights”, New Zealand climate activist Kera Sherwood-O’Regan urged negotiators gathered in a corridor to call their ministers and “tell them right now that we need our rights in the text”.

If the inclusion of human rights in relation to the CDM’s successor mechanism remains in the rule book, it could help safeguard groups like forest dwellers from abuses, said Duyck.

But should those references be scrapped, “the risks are very clear”, he added.

(Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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