UN Experts Call for Climate Action to Protect Human Rights

October 31, 2014
  • Edward Cameron

    Former Managing Director, BSR

Edward Cameron, Director, Partnership Development and Research, BSR

Earlier this month, 27 of the 39 independent experts holding mandates to report and advise on human rights issues for the UN Human Rights Council coauthored an open letter calling on all governments to ensure full coherence between their human rights obligations and their efforts to address climate change.

It further called on them to recognize the adverse effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights, and to adopt urgent and ambitious mitigation and adaptation measures to prevent more harm to socioecological systems globally. Using language familiar to the human rights community, they asked governments to respect, protect, promote, and fulfill human rights for all in all climate change policies.

This letter is the most recent illustration of the growing nexus between climate change and human rights. During the past decade, a large body of work from scholars, the UN, international organizations, and civil society has highlighted how climate change is undermining human rights and how a human rights approach can be used to strengthen climate resilience. For instance, by providing vulnerable populations with platforms to participate in decision-making, account for their experience, and help shape mitigation strategies, a human rights approach can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Attention to human rights also can enhance adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities by providing them with access to information and helping tackle cultural, societal, political, and economic norms that often exacerbate their vulnerability. This is particularly important for women and indigenous peoples.

This issue is becoming more significant for business. During the past year, the number of BSR member companies developing an interest in climate because of their care for human rights has grown. These companies understand that our ability to make progress on human rights could be impeded by increasing climate risk. These companies also realize that they can draw on their existing strengths on human rights to craft effective climate resilience approaches. It is notable that Michael Addo, who chairs the UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations, is one of the letter’s signatories.

At BSR, we are aware of the strong connection between climate change and human rights, and we are keen to work with business to explore the full range of impacts. At the BSR Conference 2014 next week, we have a session titled “Climate Change: The Greatest Human Rights Challenge of Our Time” to examine how strengthening human rights can build climate resilience—and to discuss the implications of this for business. This is particularly timely: In the annual BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey, corporate sustainability practitioners rank both human rights and climate change as two of the top three sustainability issues for their company.

In recent years, our understanding of climate change has evolved. We no longer see this issue as exclusively related to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Fortunately, we understand the profound implications for livelihoods, homes, mobility, health, profit, and, indeed, human rights. This understanding is opening new doors to elevate the issue higher on the decision agenda. We hope business also heeds the call of this open letter: It’s time to build corporate policies and interventions that build resilience for climate change and protect and enhance human rights.

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