Derogating civil responsibility: international human rights NGOs and the climate challenge

Climate change is without question a human rights issue.

It already affects many of the world’s most vulnerable people, increases vulnerability and affects different groups disproportionately. It directly undermines states’ ability to provide an adequate standard of living and challenges our understanding of the right to development. The protection of human rights should therefore be an intrinsic element in the elaboration of new climate standards and processes in order to ensure that these processes promote, rather then obstruct, the full realisation of human rights.

While relevant draft international texts recognise the impact of climate change on human rights, they have yet to sufficiently reference states’ human rights obligations in the development of climate policy. Part of the reason for this is that the climate change and human rights worlds do not always connect where they should.

The recent Social Forum of the UN Human Rights Council is a strong case in point. The principle of the Forum is sound – UN accredited and non-accredited organisations engage with states on a thematic issue related to human rights and development. Yet its execution buries optimism in the sand, with generally low level, low volume state and NGO representation, and a real lack of engagement. The annual convening of the Social Forum from 4 to 6 October 2010 on human rights and climate change was no different. It was illuminating, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

First the positives: high level, knowledgeable speakers; insights into important collaborations among UN organs (such as UNHCR and the IOM’s work on closing legal gaps for the protection of climate migrants), at least two good presentations on rights-based approaches to climate governance, and strong challenges to the human rights community to anticipate the effects of climate change on the design of human rights legal frameworks.

But a good podium does not make a good forum. What the Social Forum may well have indicated is that many human rights NGOs, or at least a number of those present who took the floor, continue to focus on the well-established impacts of climate change on the protection of human rights. However, few were sufficiently engaged with developments in climate governance to make workable proposals on how to integrate human rights into solutions and responses to climate change, such as identifying rights-holders and duty bearers, the right to meaningful public participation in decision-making and national oversight mechanisms, gender sensitivity in the development of national strategies, and strengthened systems of accountability for rights violations. NGO participation in the Social Forum therefore appeared to manifest one critique that the human rights movement runs the risk of lagging behind the climate curve.

The challenge remains for NGOs working on climate governance, and, as is the case with Transparency International, corruption risks in climate governance, to get human rights NGOs properly on board in international and national climate governance processes. The primary responsibility, however, remains with human rights NGOs, or more particularly those with the financial and human capacity, to take the initiative themselves, both to ensure fair and just outcomes in climate policy, but also to ensure that climate change developments do not render the current human rights architecture outmoded.

The new Mary Robinson Foundation on Climate Justice seems to be the first new organisation geared to bringing human rights solutions to climate governance, while the Center for International Environmental Law also includes human rights in its work also. It will be interesting to see how it can engage wider civil society networks on climate change.

Likewise, here at the International Anti Corruption Conference it is clear that there is a need for civil society to share approaches on climate change, corruption and human rights challenges (and here), and enhance collaboration across movements. It is also a good opportunity to learn how others strategise, in order to then channel this experience back into different fields of advocacy. Such beginnings may encourage other international human rights NGOs to follow Mary Robinson’s example and redress what has to date been a significant lost opportunity.

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