Less than three weeks ahead of the global COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow, two key United Nations human rights bodies in Geneva have taken action to strengthen the human rights framework around the climate crisis. The decisions are a clear signal that unless governments take more ambitious climate action necessary to protect human rights from the increasingly catastrophic toll the crisis is having around the globe, there is now a higher chance they will be held accountable for their inaction.
On October 11, the UN Children’s Rights Committee discussed a complaint lodged by 15 children and youth – including Greta Thunberg – against five countries claiming they were making inadequate efforts to address the climate crisis that would result in severe impacts on child rights and future generations. Disappointingly, the committee declared the petition inadmissible on procedural grounds, ruling that the children should have first brought domestic legal action in each of the five countries. But it also ruled that greenhouse gas emissions have a negative effect on the rights of children living outside the boundaries of the states producing the emissions, potentially leading to a violation of their rights, and opening the door for similar cases to be successful.
Last week, the UN Human Rights Council also adopted two landmark resolutions on the environment. The first recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment which will help empower local communities to defend their livelihoods, health, and culture against environmental destruction. The second established a new expert on human rights and climate change, to assess governments’ climate policies, provide them with guidance on how to uphold their rights obligations to address climate change, and call them out publicly when they fail to do so.
Just weeks out from COP26, these three decisions come at a time when forest fires, drought, heat, floods, and other extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change are already causing harm and suffering to millions of people. They put governments on notice that meeting their human rights obligations will need to be a central issue in the climate change negotiations in Glasgow and beyond.