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Urgent need to integrate human rights into climate change policy as displacement increases

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Raising the crisis of rural and coastal population displacement, a COP23 presidency event on human rights last week called for increased protection of those who are the most vulnerable to climate change: women, indigenous communities, the impoverished, children, and the disabled.

“It’s fitting that we have a high-level event on human rights… it reminds us that our work on climate change must put people first,” said Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji and COP23 President. “Climate change amplifies conflicts between peoples, and it accentuates the gaps between rich and poor. If left unchecked, it exaggerates human misery and suffering.”

Each year, people are displaced by climate change-related weather events, resulting in loss of livelihood, and in land conflict. A resolution on human rights and climate change was formulated by the UN Human Rights Council in June to specifically address cross border migration—a first step: “We need the UN system to be at its best for this. Many more resources will have to be allocated,” said Bainimarama.

The Prime Minister issued a call for all countries to support climate migrants, with his own example: “Fiji has offered to give refuge to our neighbours in the event that their nations become uninhabitable.”

The President of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, echoed this sentiment, urging international solidarity: “No nation has a perfect record, but no nation must ever stop in securing these rights,” she said. “It is important that we not only consider panel discussions and special envoys, but address the real-world implications in our communities.”

Heine reminded those in attendance that land masses are much more than geological phenomenon, they contain legacies of language, culture, community, identity—and statehood. Climate change threatens peoples’ right to simply exist on their land, like their ancestors before them. Contained within this are deep questions concerning rights to basic resources, like food and water.

Environmental defenders and vulnerable groups must be protected

Another topic raised by the event’s panel was the dangers environmental defenders face—particularly women and indigenous activists. They are being harassed, abused, and murdered: 160 defenders this year have paid with their lives, at a rate of four each week.

What more can be done to protect these vulnerable groups in the face of climate change?

H.E. Edgar Gutierrez Espeleta, UNEA President and Minister for Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, emphasised the importance of transparency and ambition in policy as well as an exchange of expertise and best practices to build collective capacity on climate change.

H.E. Aziz Mekouar, Ambassador for Multilateral Negociations Morocco, said Morocco has been working for many years on creating a platform for indigenous people as well as a climate justice coalition consisting of 1,300 people.

‘Just transition’ a key consideration in the global shift towards clean energy

Anabella Rosemberg, Policy Officer Climate Change and Occupational Health and Safety International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) cautioned that, when implementing climate initiatives and policy in countries, it’s essential that human rights considerations be made, specifically ‘just transition’—ensuring that people’s jobs are not lost during a transition to renewable energy, for example. Otherwise, communities may feel threatened and oppose climate action.

Bureaucracy and inefficiency major challenges to climate action

Another challenge to human rights policy implementation is bureaucracy, a point raised by Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Co-chair International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change. She highlighted the need to bridge a gap between the dialogues happening within COP23, and country negotiations and action. She emphasised the importance of leveraging the knowledge of indigenous peoples—those living some of the most severe ramifications of climate change—to shape these decisions.

Closing the panel, Mary Robinson, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, reinforced the link between climate change and human rights: “There is no doubt that climate change is the greatest human rights challenge we face, because it is an existential threat.”

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