The impact of climate change on human rights

Posted: 07/26/2016

Mary RobinsonReflections on the Law Society’s Rule of Law event – Climate Justice: The Way Forward Post Paris Agreement by Sara Seck, Senior Fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s International Law Research Program and Associate Professor at Western Law

On June 20th, the Law Society hosted a Rule of Law event featuring Her Excellency Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and current Chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

The topic for the evening was climate justice.

The event began with opening remarks by The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, who, among other prestigious positions in her distinguished career, led the United Nations Environment Programme from 1992 – 1998.

“Tonight we will hear about climate justice,” said Her Honour. “The Paris Agreement, reached in December, was a triumph of multilateralism. Yet it was never a sure thing. For many years, climate change seemed like an intractable issue, paralyzed by great power politics and vested economic interests.”

“Why Paris finally succeeded will, I’m sure, be fertile territory for analysts and scholars and graduate students for years to come. And while success has many parents, let me suggest that a good measure of this success should be attributed to Mary Robinson. “

As former Law Society Treasurer Janet Minor explained, ““Climate justice views climate change as more than an environmental issue — rather as a people-centred issue that cannot be considered in isolation from fundamental global justice concerns confronting the international community. It brings action on climate change, together with international human rights law, sustainable development, and the rights of future generations.”

I had the honour of leading the discussion with Mary Robinson.

If you aren’t familiar with it, the Mary Robinson Foundation’s mission is to “put justice and equity at the heart of climate change responses” by empowering poor and marginalised communities who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Seven Principles guide the work of the Foundation, beginning with the need to protect and respect human rights.

Our discussion began with a reflection of Robinson’s time as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997-2002. She noted that there was no consideration of the linkage between climate change and human rights, but since then, the UN Human Rights Council has devoted considerable attention to the topic. The 2015 Paris Agreement is the first climate agreement to refer explicitly to the importance of human rights, although the reference was ultimately confined to the preamble.

Other important principles of climate justice, according to Mary Robinson, are the need to support the right to development, to allocate “benefits and burdens” equitably, to ensure climate change decision-making is participatory and transparent, and to address gender equality and equity. These principles feature to differing degrees in the Paris Agreement, and also align well with another important global normative consensus of 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, Sustainable Development Goal 13 addresses climate action, while Goal 5 is to “[a]chieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls,” which includes as a target the “full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.” The discussion that followed considered the way in which women in many cultures are confronted with the realities of living with climate change yet also have the potential to serve as change agents if given access to inclusive participatory decision-making processes.

Two additional principles of climate justice advocated by the Mary Robinson Foundation are the need for climate stewardship education to secure transformative change, and the need to engage in effective partnerships for climate justice.

This led to a discussion of the role of both businesses and lawyers in the search for solutions to the devastating problem of climate change. Here, Robinson spoke with enthusiasm of the International Bar Association’s Climate Justice Report, the outcome of a challenge she posed to the International Bar Association a few years ago. We agreed that, in light of the UN Human Rights Council’s endorsement in 2011 of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses should not wait for states to regulate to take independent action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

As the event took place several days after the tragic shooting of British MP Jo Cox, a passionate supporter of the rights of migrants known to Mary Robinson during Cox’s time with Oxfam, we also discussed the troubling increase globally in the murder of environmental human rights defenders.

The discussion concluded with reflection on the potential importance of human rights and climate justice education for the legal profession.