The UN COP25 climate summit and the need to protect human rights defenders

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Peace Brigades International accompanies human rights defenders who struggle against some of the biggest accelerants of climate breakdown, including fracking, hydroelectric dams, deforestation, palm oil plantations, and mining.

The preamble of the Paris Agreement, agreed to at the United Nations COP21 climate summit in 2015, states, “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.”

In October 2017, Katharina Rall from Human Rights Watch wrote, “The frequent attacks and threats against environmental rights defenders throughout the world are an example of why governments need to include protecting rights in their climate policies.”

She highlights, “Unless governments stop the criminalization of defenders, protect those who defend the environment, and respect due process show a larger commitment to human rights, any efforts to protect the climate will easily be blocked.”

But by the time of the COP24 climate summit in Poland in December 2018, Grist reported, “When the Paris Agreement was signed, parties outlined a vision that recognized nations must respect and protect human rights [but] the latest draft of the Paris Rulebook (which outlines what countries need to do to put the accord into action) omits a human rights reference.”

At that time, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, lamenting this development stated, “I’ve seen how renewable projects like wind farms and hydropower electric dams have been done without consultation with indigenous peoples. And in the process, indigenous peoples are expelled or worse yet, killed.”

Now the UN COP25 climate summit is scheduled to take place from December 2-13 in Santiago, Chile.

On March 20 of this year, in the lead-up to that summit, the UN Human Rights Council passed this resolution that “stresses that human rights defenders, including environmental human rights defenders, must be ensured a safe and enabling environment to undertake their work free from hindrance and insecurity, in recognition of their important role in supporting States to fulfil their obligations under the Paris Agreement…”

That resolution, “also urges States to develop and appropriately resource protection initiatives for human rights defenders…”

But earlier this month, the Inter Press Service reported that Chile, the host country for the COP25 climate summit, has yet to sign (or ratify) the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters for Latin America and the Caribbean (also known as the Escazú treaty).

That article explains, “Under the agreement, states commit to ensure a safe environment for defenders to act, take appropriate and effective measures to recognize and protect their rights, and take measures to prevent, investigate and prosecute attacks against environmental defenders.”

More potently, Amnesty International has commented that the agreement “imposes specific obligations to protect environmental human rights defenders from threats or attacks; to investigate and punish any aggressions against them; and to guarantee their rights to life and personal integrity, as well as the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, movement, expression and association.”

Human rights and the Clean Development Mechanism

Furthermore, it has been noted that hydroelectric dam projects have been eligible to receive carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a mechanism reflected in the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement.

The designation of the Barro Blanco Dam on the Tabasará River in Panama as a CDM had lent the controversial project legitimacy. Meanwhile, the dam was being built on the territory of the Indigenous Ngäbe peoples without their consent.

This Reuters article notes that similar problems with dams have been reported in countries including Honduras and Guatemala.

The Center for International Environmental Law has stated that the Barro Blanco project highlights the need for a human rights-based approach in the “sustainable development initiatives” that could replace the Clean Development Mechanism in 2020.

Human rights and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

The United Nations has explained, “The Paris Agreement requests each country to outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions, known as their NDCs.”

Human Rights Watch has noted, “Including human rights considerations in reporting guidelines for ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (i.e. national climate change action plans) could help ensure that government actions on climate change respect, protect and fulfill human rights.”

The next round of NDCs are to be submitted by 2020.


The upcoming United Nations COP25 climate summit in Santiago, Chile this December provides an opportunity for States to build on the language regarding human rights obligations in the Paris Agreement, include human rights in the Paris Rulebook, reinforce language and practices to protect human rights defenders from threats or attacks, and to ensure that all measures adopted to address climate change are situated within a human rights framework.

Further reading

Colombian human rights defenders to visit Canada to speak on climate change and fracking (August 8, 2019)

PBI-Mexico accompanies Indigenous Zapotec group opposed to industrial wind power megaprojects on their territory (July 20, 2019)

PBI-Honduras visits community where mining and solar power are pending issues (August 16, 2019)

PBI-Honduras and PBI-Guatemala accompany Indigenous communities opposed to dams (August 16, 2019)

The Global Climate Strike and Colombian human rights defender Hernán Bedoya (August 15, 2019)

Thunberg’s visit to Mexico could draw attention to the risks faced by human rights defenders (July 29, 2019)

Human rights defenders play a crucial role in the struggle for climate justice (July 20, 2019)

Photo by Juan Mayorga/Twitter.

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