Woman holds sign during March for Climate at UN Climate Talks in Katowice, Poland. 

© 2018 Cara Schulte/Human Rights Watch

Today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, governments at the climate summit COP24 in Poland are working around the clock to finalize the Paris “Rulebook” – the regulations that will guide the implementation of the Paris Agreement to mitigate climate change. Nongovernmental groups and UN human rights experts have urged governments to explicitly reference human rights in these rules.

But detracting from focused negotiations and effective climate action is the Polish government’s crackdown on civil society activists and nongovernmental groups.

Following the adoption of a Polish law passed earlier this year restricting protests and increasing police surveillance powers during COP24, many environmental groups championing a strong Paris Rulebook have struggled to make their voices heard at the Katowice meeting. Over the last week, several environmental defenders and activists have been barred from entering the country. Human Rights Watch also documented that Polish border guards went to the hotel rooms of some activists, including people accredited for COP24, and asked them for their passports and travel history. Two were detained and questioned for several hours, without being able to communicate their location or contact a lawyer, before they were released.

Beyond the immediate impact on those prevented from speaking out in Katowice, these intimidation tactics are diverting resources and media attention. Instead of advocating for ambitious, rights-based climate action, many COP participants had to redirect most efforts towards defending their rights.

The repression of environmental defenders at COP24 underscores the necessity of integrating a rights-based approach into the global climate framework. At a defining moment in international climate diplomacy, and with only four days left until the official end of the negotiations, states should find guidance in the human rights language in the preamble of the Paris Agreement and adopt climate policies that respect their human rights obligations.

If governments fail to address human rights, they will fail to effectively address climate change.