Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world. The human implications of currently projected levels of global heating are catastrophic. Storms are rising and tides could submerge entire island nations and coastal cities. Fires rage through our forests, and the ice is melting. We are burning up our future – literally.
The climate emergency is already driving a sharp increase in global hunger, which according to FAO has increased this year for the first time in a decade. WHO expects climate change to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 – from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone. In many nations, chaotic weather patterns and other manifestations of our environmental emergency are already reversing major development gains; exacerbating conflict, displacement and social tension; hampering economic growth; and shaping increasingly harsh inequalities.
The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope. This is not a situation where any country, any institution, any policy-maker can stand on the sidelines. The economies of all nations; the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every State; and the rights of all your people – and future generations – will be impacted.
The window of opportunity for action may be closing – but there is still time to act. We live in an era of tremendous innovation. More thoughtful approaches to our use of natural and renewable resources; policies which protect and empower marginalised communities, including various social protection initiatives; and better strategies by businesses across their supply chains can be good for the environment and promote greater human dignity and rights.
This Council has recognised that “human rights obligations, standards and principles have the potential to inform and strengthen international, regional and national policymaking in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes".
We need to act on that powerful statement. We need strong national commitments for action, with an emphasis on participation by environmental human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, and civil society groups representing the communities that are most at risk – as well as support from business actors, cities and other active stakeholders.
The Secretary-General will convene a Climate Action Summit in two weeks' time in New York to step up the pace of climate action by States and the international community.
I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, in over 100 national and regional laws, which defines the relationship between the environment and human rights. To each of us, a healthy environment is no less important than the food we eat, the water we drink, or the freedom of thought we cherish; all people, everywhere, should be able to live in a healthy environment and hold accountable those who stand in the way of achieving it.
This Council has a critical role to play, with both existing and innovative means to contribute to climate action. There are five key points that I believe should guide our action on climate.
Point one: Climate change undermines rights, development and peace.
The Secretary-General has noted that over the past six decades, 40% of civil wars have been linked to environmental degradation. While there are many current examples of this, I want to look to the countries of the Sahel region. As the UN Special Adviser on the Sahel has noted, this is among the regions most vulnerable to climate change, with temperature increases projected to be 1.5 times higher than the global average.
Desertification has massive impact on people's enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. The degradation of arable land across the Sahel region is intensifying competition for already scarce resources, leading to frequent clashes between herders and agriculturalists – which, in turn, exacerbate ethnic tensions. Slow development, and increasing poverty, are exposing youth to exploitation by extremist and terrorist groups, fuelling violence – including attacks on schools; displacement; and political instability.
The initiative by the G5 Sahel countries to create a joint force to combat terrorism, and their commitment to ensure that actions by the force are compliant with human rights, are commendable. However, addressing the root causes of the current situation will also require significant investment in redressing environmental threats; providing real opportunities for youth; and tackling inequalities.
My second point: Effective climate action requires broad and meaningful participation.
Effective climate adaptation measures will be those which empower women; indigenous peoples; and others who live in vulnerable areas, who are often members of marginalised and discriminated communities. This requires Governments to recognise the structural factors, which deepen these communities' climate vulnerability; involve them in seeking solutions; and dedicate resources to upholding their rights, including equitable and improved access to social protection and a just transition towards greener jobs.
There is abundant evidence that women – in particular, women with disabilities – are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. The exclusion of half of society from effectively helping to shape environmental policies means those policies will be less responsive to the specific damage being caused; less effective in protecting communities; and may even intensify the harm being done.
Twelve years ago, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples1 recognised "the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies – especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources".
Point three: We must better protect those who defend the environment.
Environmental defenders – including those who defend indigenous peoples' right to land – engage in great service to their countries, and indeed humanity. The Office and Special Rapporteurs have noted attacks on environmental human rights defenders in virtually every region, particularly in Latin America.
I am disheartened by this violence, and also by the verbal attacks on young activists such as Greta Thunberg and others, who galvanise support for prevention of the harm their generation may bear. The demands made by environmental defenders and activists are compelling, and we should respect, protect and fulfil their rights.
Last month, the Office signed a strengthened partnership with the UN Environment Programme. This will include stepping up our cooperation to protect environmental human rights defenders at headquarters and in specific country and regional presences. It will ensure that we work within the UN system to ensure consistency and coherence across environmental and human rights actions. It will increase our support for national implementation of human rights-based environmental policies, including through the work of national human rights institutions.
My fourth point: Those most affected are leading the way.
Small island nations are among those suffering the most catastrophic effects of climate change, although they contribute very little to fuelling the problem. Just this past week, yet another devastating hurricane hit the Bahamas, taking a terrible toll in human life and destroying precious development gains. The storm accelerated with unprecedented speed over an ocean warmed by climate shifts, becoming one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever to hit land.
Most of the population of the Caribbean lives within coastal zones – and several Caribbean countries, including the Bahamas and Dominica, have introduced policies aimed at building climate resilience and mitigation measures. But according to research by ECLAC in 2011, rising sea levels could submerge between 10 and 12 percent of the territory of the Bahamas by 2050: an inestimable loss for humanity. And the reality is that island States cannot act alone to solve a problem that is not of their own making.
South Pacific States have been leading the global call for climate action and climate justice. Our presences in the region receive evidence almost daily of impact on communities’ rights to water and sanitation, health, food, work, adequate housing – and the resulting displacement of people. I call on the international community to increase the provision of resources and technical support to South Pacific countries, and all Small Island States, for mitigation, adaptation and prevention.
This brings me to point five: Business will be crucial to climate action
To avert future climate harms and ensure climate justice, businesses must be part of the solution. The Caring for Climate Initiative, hosted by the UN Global Compact and UN Environment, brings together more than 400 companies from around the world that have committed to taking action to address the climate crisis. Their contributions to the green and blue economies are key to the achievement of sustainable development.
Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. States have an affirmative obligation to effectively regulate business to prevent human rights harms. Yet in many countries, Government support and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry endangers climate goals. I remind all States of the need for policy coherence – nationally and internationally – in how they seek to address the human rights impact of climate change, including in relation to business activities.
I would like to draw this Council's attention to a number of other human rights situations.
In Syria, the ongoing military escalation continues to severely affect civilians, health services and schools, particularly in southern Idlib and northern Hama. Since the launch of the current campaign on 29 April, more than a thousand civilians have been killed, including at least 300 children – mainly due to airstrikes by Government forces and their allies, but also, to a lesser extent, attacks by non-state armed groups. Since the beginning of May, OCHA has recorded 600,000 more displacements. The Office has recorded damage or destruction of 51 hospitals, clinics and ambulance referral points so far this year, with two incidents in which the same facility was repeatedly hit, resulting in additional casualties among rescue teams and first responders.
In Kazakhstan, a wave of peaceful protests since March has been met with the arrests of over 4,000 people. I note some positive signs of growing acceptance by officials of peaceful demonstrations, and I encourage the newly created National Council of Public Trust to include civil society groups which are calling for greater civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The continued detention of prisoners deemed to be political, and the effective prohibition of opposition assemblies, are not conducive to genuine and open dialogue. I encourage the authorities to reform laws that are being used to stifle dissent, including the broad definition of hate speech and libel; criminalisation of libel; restrictive permits for peaceful assemblies; and restrictive regulations of NGOs, labour unions and religious organisations.
I also remain concerned by extensive arrests and police action in the Russian Federation, where yesterday’s local elections in Moscow were preceded by weeks of protests, resulting from the exclusion of several opposition candidates. More than 2,500 people were arrested at demonstrations in July and August; currently, five have been sentenced to prison terms, and others face criminal charges. I support calls by the Presidential Council on Human Rights for investigations into allegations of excessive use of force by the police, and I urge the authorities to uphold freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to participate in public affairs.
Our countries have demonstrated many times in recent decades that they can surmount tremendous human rights challenges. Some, my own among them, have turned their backs on dictatorship and established vibrant democracies. Many have enabled people previously discriminated and oppressed – including women – to make their own fundamental choices, in freedom. Others, in a very short space of time, have brought millions of people out of poverty, and promoted their access to critical economic and social rights.
Today we have many hard-won achievements to defend, and other, newer struggles that we must lead. But although these tasks will be difficult, I am convinced we can achieve them. We can end fossil fuel consumption, and take other steps to curtail climate change. We can undo structural discrimination, and uphold justice. We can help realise the right to development, by standing up for everyone's right to participate in decisions. With sufficient determination, acting in partnership, we can take steps to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms – and in doing so, we will strengthen our societies, and build a better future for us all.