November 26, 2023

COP28: Put Human Rights at the Center of All Discussions

From Adaptation Funding to the Right to Protest, People Must Come First

Countries taking part in the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in the United Arab Emirates should focus on the grave risks that climate change poses to the rights of present and future generations around the world, Climate Rights International said today. The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) takes place from November 30-December 12 in the United Arab Emirates.

In addition to the urgent phase out of fossil fuels and stepped-up efforts to end deforestation, negotiators should prioritize the rights of vulnerable groups and communities, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, and climate defenders. Substantial increases in funding from all high-emitting wealthy countries for climate adaptation and loss and damage, as well as justice and accountability for climate harms, are essential outcomes of a successful COP28.

As Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate has said, “No more empty promises, no more empty summits, no more empty press conferences. It’s time to show us the money. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time. And don’t forget to listen to the people and places most affected.”

“Climate change is the biggest global human rights crisis of our time, causing the loss of livelihoods, the destruction of communities, forced displacement, and death in every region of the world,” said Brad Adams, Executive Director at Climate Rights International. “COP28 must put rights, equity, and justice at the center of all negotiations and outcomes. At the end of the conference, governments and corporations should be left in no doubt that they will be held legally accountable for continuing and future harms.”

A Human Rights Crisis

The 2015 Paris Agreement states that, “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”

Those most responsible for the crisis are best situated to cope with the effects of climate change, while its impacts are disproportionately experienced by people in countries and regions least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

However, governments, including at previous COPs, have failed to make human rights a priority, Climate Rights International said. Around the world, rapidly warming temperatures are wreaking havoc on communities, spurring floods, famines, heat waves, droughts and wildfires that have left thousands dead and harmed millions more. Rising sea levels threaten islands and coastal communities. Climate change is devastating livelihoods, causing food insecurity, and driving the displacement of millions of people from their homes.

2023 has been the hottest year on record, leading to large numbers of deaths and other devastating consequences. A recent study estimates that worldwide heat deaths will increase by 370 percent by the middle of the century if strong and immediate steps are not taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Sweltering temperatures keep people from sleeping, result in unsafe conditions for workers, and lead to school closures for students.

At COP28, states should commit to increase urgently needed investments in renewable energy, end fossil fuel subsidies, and ensure that the energy transition, including the extraction of critical minerals to power renewable energy technologies, fully respects the human rights of frontline communities. Globally, an estimated 54 percent of critical mineral mining projects are located on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, endangering customary land rights and the loss of traditional livelihoods. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides that states shall consult and cooperate with Indigenous peoples “to obtain their free, prior and informed consent” before adopting measures that may affect them, including those related to land or natural resources. The Declaration has the support of all but 11 countries and is increasingly treated as a mandatory minimum standard.

Justice, Equity and Accountability

As climate activist Luisa Neubauer stated, “Climate action that isn’t just can never be sustainable. It will fuel conflict, divide people and ultimately undermine everything.”

Parties at COP28 must ensure that agreements on the key issues of climate mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage are designed to protect the most vulnerable people and their economic, social, and cultural rights.

In 2009, wealthy nations pledged $100 billion per year to developing countries for climate adaptation. Despite this landmark agreement, only a small percentage of the total has been delivered, and much of that has been through loans that only increase the indebtedness of countries already facing excessive debt. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Program estimates that adaptation finance costs alone this decade will be over $200 billion per year, more than double the floor agreed to eight years ago. Some estimates are much higher.

Countries at COP28 should create a binding legal framework for climate finance (grants, not loans), adaptation efforts (including technology transfers), and contributions to the loss and damage facility established at COP27 in 2022 in Egypt.

“Wealthy countries must end the practice of making headline-grabbing agreements that they ignore when they fly back home,” said Adams. “An essential outcome of COP28 will be for all high-emitting wealthy countries, including China, the United States, and members of the European Union, and the Gulf States, to make firm and time-bound commitments to fully fund climate adaptation and loss and damage. Voluntary pledges will not suffice, as wealthy countries have a long history of broken climate promises.”

Protection of Climate Activists and Protesters

To address climate change, people around the world are increasingly exercising their rights to challenge governments and corporations, engage in collective action, and take to the streets to protest. Many are being thrown in prison or facing threats, violence, and death. In Vietnam, climate activists have been jailed on bogus tax fraud charges in an attempt to silence them. The Cambodian government has barred defenders from travelling to accept international awards for their climate efforts. Fikile Ntshangase, an anti-mining activist in South Africa, was murdered in her home; the company she was protesting against acknowledged community tensions may have been a factor in her death. In Colombia, Global Witness identified at least 60 environmental and land rights activists killed in 2022 alone, an average of more than one per week.

Alarmingly, established democracies are also cracking down on peaceful protesters. For example, the United Kingdom recently handed out a three year prison sentence to climate activist Morgan Trowland, the most severe punishment in Britain’s history for a peaceful climate protest. In the United States, Timothy Martin and Joanna Smith are facing five years in prison after being indicted on conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States following their peaceful protest in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. France drew global criticism after disbanding the climate group, Soulèvements de la Terre, on public order grounds in June 2023; on November 9 the Council of State reversed the ban, saying it was neither necessary nor proportionate and violated the right to freedom of association.

The final outcome documents at COP28 should halt  this trend of responding to the actions of peaceful protesters with disproportionate punishments and reaffirm states’ obligation to protect the rights to peaceful expression, association, and assembly, Climate Rights International said. If not addressed, crackdowns on peaceful protesters will create a chilling effect among activists, which will only make it easier for corporations to further perpetuate the climate crisis without consequences.

The right to engage in peaceful protests is especially vital for young people, who often have few other avenues to engage in the democratic process, Climate Rights International said. COP28 should emphasize the need for intergenerational solutions, ensuring access and participation of youth.

“Non-violent protests have been the bedrock of successful environmental and human rights movements throughout history,” said Adams. “Instead of cracking down on peaceful protestors, governments should be listening to climate and environmental defenders. A welcome headline from COP28 would be that countries have reaffirmed their international legal obligations to protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest.”

Photo Credit: Youth Climate Strike. Photo by: Ronan Furuta via Unsplash (CCO).

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