States’ Human Rights Obligations in the Context of Climate Change: 2020 Update

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The document contains an overview of the project (22p) and four annexes that synthesize the works of CIEL committees that monitor compliance of state with the obligations laid out in UN treaties protecting:

  1. Human Rights (3p)
  2. Women’s Rights (8p)
  3. Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (6p)
  4. Children’s Rights (8p)

The overview notes that 500 human rights treaty bodies issued a joint public statement articulating States’ human rights obligations in 2019 in the context of climate change, in advance of the UN’s Climate Summit.  Builds on two previous Synthesis Notes.  The Human Rights Treaty Bodies are “institutions established under each of the UN human rights treaties which are mandated to monitor States’ implementation of their human rights obligations under those legal instruments.” For example, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) guarantees the rights of children to “life, freedom of expression , health , an adequate standard of living, including food, water, sanitation, and housing, and education.”

The joint statement on climate change, constituting a commitment by the 196 States that have signed the relevant UN human rights treaties was a rare event.  The draft statement stresses that “limiting fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions and the harmful environmental effects of extractive industries such as mining and fracking, as well as the allocation of climate financing, are regarded as crucial steps in mitigating the negative human rights impact of climate change and disasters.”

An example of the test the enforcement teeth of this widely agreed upon treaty was initiated in 2019:  In the first action of its kind, in May 2019, a group of Torres Strait Islanders lodged a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee against Australia in relation to climate-induced rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion, and inundation of their communities in the north of Australia. “The Islanders claim that Australia’s failure to reduce emissions, combined with the absence of adequate climate adaptation measures, violates their fundamental human rights, including their rights to life and culture. The petition describes the serious impacts of climate change on the island life of the Torres Strait Islanders, highlighting how climate change is threatening their homes, land, food sources, water sources, cultural sites, and practices.  Ultimately, climate change will forcibly displace the Torres Strait Islanders to mainland Australia, away from their land and sea ter- ritories, to which their culture is inextricably linked.”

The Report lists a large catalog of that are either being taken or could be taken by individuals against states based on the treaties it discusses.  For example, regarding climate education, states are responsible for providing “women and girls with  career counseling, scholarships, and other incentives,  such as gender-focused community participation training.” If states don’t provide such education, they could be charged with non-compliance based on these treaties.

Note: This report constitutes a review and analysis of wide ranging set of international treaties. If and when enforced, the obligations agreed to by the 196 signatories to these treaties could have a transformative effect on economic, judicial and educational practices.