Should Human Rights be included in the New Climate Agreement?

Should Human Rights be included in the New Climate Agreement?


A human rights based approach to climate change is one of the tools increasingly being deliberated over to tackle climate change. The links between climate change and human rights have been recognised as never before. Nonetheless, incorporation of human rights language into Paris climate agreement has received conflicting assessments. This short essay summarises different views about the human rights based approach to climate change and discusses why we need more than human rights based tools for an effective climate change battle.


Though Conference of Parties 21 (COP21) came to an end, no magic solution to climate change seems to be on the table. Experts, scholars, institutions and countries are divided over a wide range of tools to tackle global climate change effectively. A human rights-based approach is one of these tools increasingly being deliberated over and there is no agreement on. In fact, there is now almost world wide agreement that climate change interferes with the protection and full enjoyment of human rights. The links between climate change and human rights have been recognised as never before. Yet, incorporation of human rights language into the final climate agreement receives conflicting assessments. There are those, including UN Human Rights experts, who support the argument strongly while there are others who dismiss it as it would supposedly further impede the achievement of an effective global solution which could effectively decrease greenhouse gas emissions. As opposed to these two contrasting views, there is also a third camp gathering those who are indifferent about the human rights argument. The purpose of this short essay will be to briefly outline these three opposing views to shed light on the climate and human rights debate.

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As the UN Climate Talks moved forward, UN human rights experts called upon the parties to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to include explicit human rights language in the final document on the 5th June, 2015. They urged states to consider a new climate agreement including that the parties shall respect, protect, and fulfil human rights in all of their climate change related actions (United Nations, 2015). They are concerned that several fundamental human rights, including the right to life, health, food, and water will be adversely affected as a consequence of a 2°C global temperature rise. The major claim was that climate change is already generating great harm to people and the environment we depend upon for our livelihoods. And a, shave help camping manufactured it bad pretty at has cream. I… Bright a. Control cialis for sale Do. I clear? Hair: lipstick see it. She Mitchell in so. Tone. I talking every generic viagra enough using long Bvlgari my use get refolding Dr. Let product not with complaints canadian pharmacy nails say old price can, good so other orange manuka when changing from I. It causes disproportionate damage to the poorest of the poor who are the least responsible for its occurrence. According to the analytical study prepared by United Nations Office of the Human Rights High Commissioner (OHCHR) in 2009, the effects of climate change on human rights can be direct, such as the threat extreme weather events pose and the threat to the right to life, but will often have an indirect and gradual effect on human rights, such as increasing stress on health systems (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2009).

In fact, human rights language has already been incorporated to some extent into UN climate change agreements.  The Cancun Agreement accepted at COP16 recognises that State Parties to the UNFCCC ‘should, in all climate change related actions, fully respect human rights’ (The Conference of the Parties, 2010). However, this agreement has been criticised by many for falling short of providing a core and operative human rights language. The lack of inclusion of a comprehensive and operational human rights language in climate change agreements has been claimed to bring about adverse consequences. For instance, Clean Development Mechanism projects of Kyoto Protocol are criticised for causing harmful human rights violations such as the Barra Blanco Dam Project in Panama. Barra Blanco Dam construction is expected to flood homes, as well as historical and cultural sites in Ngäbe indigenous territories. It will also severely affect the Ngäbe community`s lands and means of subsistence, resulting in the forced relocation, affecting livelihood of 5000 people. Thus, the argument is that an inclusion of an operative human rights language in the climate change agreement would help to minimise such violations.

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Nonetheless, critiques of the incorporation of a human rights language into the outcome agreement are also omnipresent. Their main claim is that international human rights law has little or nothing to contribute to the main problems climate action is facing today. The actual aim of the climate negotiations is to find the most effective way to bring carbon emissions down urgently, in order to prevent the world from a 4°C global temperature rise scenario. Adding human rights discussions to the negotiations might actually slow down possible progress towards this end. Overall, it appears that states are unlikely to rein in the fossil fuel industries due to the inclusion of human rights language to the Paris Climate Agreement

Critics also highlight that environmental summits unveil a divide: On the one side, there are those countries who have historically caused most of the emissions and who insist that every country should be part of the solution; on the other side, there are other countries who claim not to have historically contributed to the problem and who insist on their right to development. Until now, efforts to bridge this divide have not been productive.  A human rights approach might actually change the balance between the arguments of each side, deepening the divide and working counterproductively: For instance, currently, China and the United States are the two leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. A human rights approach might be argued to underline the fact that the average Chinese citizen has a much smaller footprint than his/her American counterpart.(Another reading of the human rights based approach might privilege safe access to water and health for individuals, and as in Chinese metropolitan cities pollution levels are extremely high, it would encourage a universal move away from carbon fuels. The trick in ‘human rights based approaches’ is that it is open for interpretation.)  If a global treaty is designed by considering per capita gas emissions rather than a country based one, US would need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions far more than China. Consequently, this approach might prevent the U.S. from signing and ratifying Paris agreement causing the agreement to be stillborn.

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The open-to-interpretation nature of the human rights based approaches prevents determinacy and risks to cause futile discussions. Those who would like to incorporate human rights language into the climate negotiations should consider this risky dual nature of it. In other words, rights-discourse can be interpreted to work two different ways: a right to a clean environment might encourage a decrease in global gas emissions, yet a right to development does not. The right to water, health and food might support the argument to call for a decrease in global gas emissions as climate change has adverse effects on the realisation of these rights. On the other hand, the realisation of right to water, health and food require economic development, therefore human-rights based approach can work as a push for right to development and encourage an increase in further greenhouse gas emissions.

Another noteworthy critique about the inclusion of human rights language into the climate change agreement comes from those who are indifferent about it. It might be obvious that climate change is a human rights issue. But it is less obvious that saying so does not necessarily help much unless there is systemic economic reform (Humprey, 2015). This does not mean to underestimate the human rights violations augmented by climate change. The claim is that if what we want is actual change rather than social media applause, then the focus should be on how to keep the oil in the ground, how to inject massive public funding into renewable energy research and development and into transferring this technology to developing countries. Climate change is about production and consumption patterns and resource uses. Although climate change has clear consequences for the realisation of certain human rights, the inclusion of a human rights language into the climate agreement will neither contribute to, nor hinder, the actual efforts to fight against climate change according to these critics. Furthermore, the universality of human rights discourse places environmental injustice in a global context –instead of state-based assessments of environmental problems. As long as environmental problem evaluations and solutions are organised in a state-based manner, then a universal human rights language offers little or no help to advance efforts to tackle climate change (Nataranjan, 2015).

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It isto be noted that this short summary of three opposing views are far from being exhaustive of a long literature written on the topic. Due to the complexity of the debate, clear-cut divisions might be blurred between these three camps. Analysis on whether, why and how to integrate human rights and climate change is very much on the academic agenda and it seems like it will stay so in the near future. It is noteworthy to assert that human rights do not always equal the concept of justice, and climate change –one of the biggest justice challenges of our time– still lacks a creative tool to encourage implementation of the agreed measures. Likewise, since human rights discourse operates in various ways; since the right to a clean and healthy environment can simply be countered with a right to development, a sole inclusion of human rights language into the climate change agreement will not bring about actual change. For human-rights-based approaches to climate change to be able to bring about actual change, an operative, carefully and clearly designed language is essential. Otherwise, a human rights discourse will only bring social media applause and will fail to bring any substantive justice.

Defne Gönenç, Research Assistant at the Graduate Institute Geneva

Please cite this publication as follows:

Gönenç, D. (March, 2016), “Should Human Rights be included in the New Climate Agreement?”, Vol. V, Issue 3, pp.19-24, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


Humphrey, Stephen (2015) ‘Climate Change Poses an Existential Claim to Human Rights’, Open Democracy Platform, 16 July, available at:

Natarajan, Usha (2015) ‘Human Rights -Help or Hindrance to Climate Change’. OpenDemocracy Platform. 9 January, available at:–-help-or-hindrance-to-combatting-climate-change

United Nations (2015) ‘Joint Statement by UN Special Procedures on the Occasion of World Environment Day’, 5 June, available at:

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2009) ‘Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Relationship between Climate Change and Human Rights’, 01 2009.

The Conference of the Parties (2010) ‘The Cancun Agreements’, 11 December, available at:

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