UN Human Rights Council shies away from appointing expert on climate

The Trift glacier in Switzerland in 2006. Glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate due to the rising global temperatures. (Keystone/James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey via AP)

Rights groups want the UN Human Rights Council to step up its game and appoint an expert to oversee the impacts of climate change on human rights, but member states are still showing resistance.

Climate change has been gradually gaining attention at the Human Rights Council in the last years, with states continuously stressing the need to act and address the effects of global warming. Rights groups are calling to see those concerns turn into actual mechanisms that could put more pressure on governments to tackle climate change and are calling for a UN expert to be appointed to look into those issues.

It’s an “existential demand” for the Human Rights Council to report on an “existential threat”, explains Sandra Epal-Ratjen, deputy executive director of the Geneva-based Franciscans International, which has been advocating for the initiative.

“If we don't address the already initiated runaway climate change and its effects, then defending human rights will be a dire exercise,” she told Geneva Solutions.

The demand resurfaces as the council’s resolution on climate change and human rights is set to be renewed at the end of the ongoing session, taking place virtually from Geneva until 13 July.

The annual resolution has been passed almost every year since 2008, requesting several times for reports on the human rights implications of the global warming for specific groups such as children or elder people. The core group of countries responsible for presenting a new version of the text – Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam – is still in discussions and has yet to present a draft.

Diplomats and civil society members are still in the dark on whether the text will include the proposal to create the mandate, but there are concerns that opposition from other states could be holding back the initiative.

Why it matters. The acceleration of global warming is having disastrous consequences for the entire world. More frequent and severe floods, droughts, hurricanes and heatwaves, sea-levels rising and ecosystems nearing the brink of collapse are wiping out the homes and food supply of millions of people and threatening to topple entire economies.

While this undeniable global threat has propelled climate change to the top of most international agendas, the issue remains marginal at the council.

Rights groups are pushing the highest authority in human rights matters to assume a more prominent role in recognising the impact of climate change on people and holding accountable those responsible for the degradation of the planet’s health.

A UN-appointed special rapporteur, who would conduct country visits, collect information, draft reports and receive individual complaints on human rights violations, could be a “voice” for those who bear the brunt of the climate crisis, Epal-Ratjen argues.

“A special rapporteur also has indirect benefits in terms of awareness raising, capacity building and advising states on very concrete policies, laws and practices,” she adds.

The links between climate change and human rights have also started to emerge in other high-level bodies such as the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change and having such an expert “would help clarify even more what the implications are”, Francesca Mingrone, staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions

Growing momentum. The idea, which initially came from rights groups, has been tossed around in UN circles for over 10 years. At the beginning, it wasn’t taken really seriously both by states and other NGOs, says Epal-Ratjen. “There wasn’t the sense of urgency that we have now,” she added.

In recent years, backing from civil society has been growing. On Tuesday, advocates published an open letter co-signed by over 370 organisations calling for the creation of the mandate.

“The issue of climate change cannot only be left any more to interesting interactive dialogues or to the existing different special procedures to address it when they can, even if their various contributions have been remarkable,” the letter states.

A number of developing countries, namely those heavily affected by climate change, have also started to back the initiative. In 2019, the Marshall Islands, on behalf of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a cross-regional group of countries particularly threatened by the rising temperatures, called for the creation of a special rapporteur.

At the last council’s session in March, Bangladesh, along with 57 other countries, voiced its support for the initiative. A few European countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Slovenia also backed the statement.

A sensitive topic. Despite growing support, the issue remains “politically and diplomatically sensitive”, according to Epal-Ratjen. “There might be some countries that would like to avoid accountability,” says Mingrone, noting that while a new expert could increase accountability, the council isn’t a jurisdictional body.

According to diplomatic sources, a number of developing countries fear that the mandate could be “used against them” to “name and shame” their governments if they don’t comply with their human rights obligations.

Except for a few, developed countries have also remained fairly quiet on the matter. Sources argue that the mandate could be used to encourage financial aid for developing countries struggling with the consequences of climate change, a responsibility that wealthy nations would most likely have to shoulder.

Rights groups would also like to see the appointed expert look at the human rights impact of climate action, for instance how the transition into cleaner energies or conservation efforts is affecting people’s rights.

“Measures to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change can have human rights impacts. The special rapporteur will need to consider these impacts as well as issues related to supporting states and communities on the frontlines of climate harms,” Mingrone says.

Other opposing arguments given by states include that the work of a special rapporteur on climate would overlap with that of the special rapporteur on the environment, which is currently held by David Boyd, but rights group say that Boyd already covers a a wide range of other environmental issues and having an expert focus on climate could lessen his burden.

Another issue often mentioned is the fact that adding another mandate would increase costs for the already financially burdened human rights body.

All these points of contention could mean that the climate change resolution would not pass by consensus, a scenario that has not presented itself before for this text and yet another reason why the proposal might not see the light of day during this session.

For Mingrone, “it is imperative that the mandate be established at the session.” Still, she says, “if it is delayed there is still considerable momentum in the global community towards the establishment of the mandate and it would only be a matter of time before the mandate is firmly established.”

The core group has until 2 July to submit their draft proposal which will determine how the council addresses the climate issue for the following year.