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How national human rights institutions are becoming key allies for climate action

Protest for Amazon indigenous peoples’ rights and climate justice in Geneva on 12 October, 2019. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

National human rights institutions (NHRIs) are increasingly including climate change in their agendas. In some countries they have even proven to be a valuable asset for environmental activists, a new report says.

Hasminah Paudac knew that taking on 47 powerful multinational corporations would not be an easy task. An environmental legal advisor for Greenpeace South-east Asia, she was part of the team who filed a legal action in 2015 with the Philippines’s Human Rights Commission against investor fossil fuel companies for contributing to climate change, a first of its kind. Four years later, the Commission has argued in its initial findings that “Carbon Majors’ had a moral responsibility for human rights impacts linked to climate change and could potentially face civil and criminal liability under national laws, including in the Philippines”.

This was one of the many examples highlighted on Tuesday during a virtual event where the German Institute for Human Rights and the Centre for international environmental law (CIEL), a Geneva-based organisation, launched their handbook on the role of NHRIs in addressing climate challenges.

Why we are talking about this. NHRIs are publicly funded yet independent institutions with a general mandate to protect and promote human rights within their countries, such as the right to freedom of expression, to education but also to a healthy environment and to food. As climate change is increasingly recognised as one of the biggest threats to human rights, some are proving to be key allies for civil society organisations advocating for climate action.

Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney at CIEL, told Geneva Solutions:

“The beauty of NHRIs is that they are established institutions that most countries have and that understand the challenges of public policy making and that are able to weigh in this discussion.”

How they are helping. Often called ombudsmen or human right commissions or institutions, some NHRIs can monitor human rights situations and advise governments on policy, while others can receive complaints and investigate.

The report highlights that “while complaints identifying climate change as the source of injury may be rare, climate change may be at least partially responsible for the injury underlying the complaint and the NHRI has an opportunity to highlight this in its response”.

Such was the case of the Philippines. The Human Rights Commission received dozens of witnesses, from climate experts to survivors of Typhoon Yolanda, which killed more than 6,000 people and affected millions. It could investigate and determine the responsibility of companies such as Shell, Chevron and Total, for contributing to climate change. Paudac said:

“Courts are not the only venue for climate litigation. NHRIs prove to be an important venue and an ideal mechanism since it is not as rigid and technical as courts.”

NHRIs are still more limited than courts since generally they cannot prosecute. Despite this, recommendations from these institutions can carry important weight. A recommendation by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission to national and local authorities led to the halt of a resort development project in the state of Quintana Roo in south-eastern Mexico. The Commission argued that cutting down mangrove forests would render local communities more vulnerable to storm surges. The government launched a program of ecological restoration instead.

NHRIs also play a role in ensuring that measures taken in the name of climate emergency do not end up hurting people. Nathaniel Eisen, a legal fellow with CIEL, explained to Geneva Solutions:

“Sometimes the measures taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or ensure that natural sinks like forests are protected those actions themselves can have negative human rights consequences. Addressing the threat of climate change is no reason for states to forget their obligations to respect human rights.”

In another example, Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights and other NGOs found that the EU’s water tower protection climate mitigation and adaptation programme was causing more harm than good. Although it intended to improve forest conservation, it was also causing Sengwer indigenous population and other communities to be forced out of their homes and their ancestral lands. This led the EU to suspend its funding of the project, according to the report.

Eisen also noted that NHRIs will have an important part to play in ensuring that the green recovery from Covid that many governments are planning is not done at the expense of vulnerable groups, like women and children.

Other than handling individual cases, NHRIs can also support the work of NGOs. Morocco’s National Human Rights Council was instrumental during the climate summit COP22 held in Marrakech in 2016 in organising a space for NGOs to participate. “Collaboration is essential to create a sustainable solutions dynamic,” Fath el Habti of the National Human Rights Council said.

Challenges ahead. Though many NHRIs have already been dealing with the impacts from climate change, such as people being displaced by floods or having water shortages because of droughts, this is still happening at very individual levels, Duyck said.

But the fact that the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), which is the organisation in charge of rating NHRIs according to their compliance with the UN Paris Principles, decided to feature climate change as one of the two main topics of their annual conference in Geneva on 4 December, goes to show that the issue is becoming more of a priority.

The meeting produced a statement expressing the members’ commitment to engage in climate action. But while the intentions are there, NHRIs face important challenges regarding climate action.

Michael Windfuhr, deputy director of the German Institute for Human Rights told Geneva Solutions:

“Many NHRIs are used to handling cases such as people being arbitrarily detained, journalists not being allowed to work freely, but do not have much experience regarding climate change. We have to develop our own methodology approach and build our capacity as NHRIs in order to address this issue.”

Following GANHRI’s meeting, a workshop with the UN Environment Program and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will be organised next year to start training NHRIs in this area, Windfuhr added.

“We want to become systematic and powerful actors in addressing the climate emergency,” he concluded.