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Human Rights Council opens door for climate expert despite resistance

Ice floes floating in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle in July, 2008. (Keystone/AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

The UN Human Rights Council adopted its annual climate change resolution on Wednesday in the face of unprecedented resistance from member states over the proposed appointment of a climate change expert.

A resolution opening the doors to a future appointment of an expert on climate change faced push back at the UN Human Rights Council as it wrapped its last day of discussions on Wednesday. The text, which has been adopted by consensus since it was first passed in 2008, was questioned by several countries including India, China and Russia for introducing a controversial proposal to the yearly resolution.

The idea to have an expert investigate the human rights impact of climate change and report back to the council has been gaining ground in recent years, with developing countries, including the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh, which face the existential threat of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, strongly advocating for it since last year.

Read also: UN Human Rights Council shies away from appointing expert on climate

In presenting the resolution, the Bangladeshi Ambassador Mustafizur Rahman said: “The council should take on a greater role in reducing the adverse impact of climate change on human rights, and countries must take more urgent meaningful action in this area.”

According to diplomatic sources, countries have been hesitant to support the move out of fear that an expert would call them out on reckless behaviour contributing to the globe heating up, and others like Russia are outright opposed to linking climate change and human rights any further.

Despite this, only Russia went as far as abstaining from the final vote.

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In an effort to appease the resistance, the proposed text stops short of appointing an expert or group of experts on climate change and instead encourages countries to continue discussions to create such a mandate in the future.

Disappointed at not having a stronger resolution, the Marshall Islands Ambassador Doreen de Brum told the council: “What we’ve seen here at this session is not only a lack of ambition, but a clear detachment by some council members from the reality and emergency that climate change presents to everybody, every one of us. And in particular, the vulnerable countries.”

The European Union as well as the United Kingdom also expressed their disappointment at not seeing an expert appointed.

“We would have preferred to see a stronger text (...) which more clearly responded to the call by many states and civil society organisations for the creation of a mandate for a new special rapporteur on human rights and climate change,” said the UK delegation.

Sandra Epal-Ratjen, deputy executive director of Franciscans International, which has been campaigning for a climate change expert, said that despite this, it was still an “interesting opening” for a future appointment.

Still unhappy with the compromise, the Russian delegation asked to scrap the mention of an expert mechanism from the resolution, arguing that the council did not have the “competencies” to take a leading role in climate change issues, which it said should be discussed at the UN Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The proposed amendment was rejected by 24 members against, 17 abstentions and 3 votes in favour.

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Epal-Ratjen said that it was “disheartening” to see Russia attempting to question the council’s authority in climate change-related issues but noted that it was part of a more general stance from the country to introduce hostile amendments to resolutions which have usually been passed by consensus.

Yves Lador, Geneva representative for the US environmental organisation Earthjustice, observed that seeing such a hostile response could push a number of states into making a stronger stance for climate change at the council.

“This first vote, although confirming the previous consensus, is like a turning point for the Human Rights Council,” said Lador, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

“Some of the states most threatened by climate change – including representatives from civil society – have felt disrespected by the way some powerful states have formulated their arguments against parts of the resolution, implying that climate change and human rights have nothing to do with each other.”

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