The Human Rights Council takes a crucial step forward on climate change

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech at the opening of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, February 2022.

The urgency of the existential threat of the climate crisis continues to mount. At its 49th regular session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) will take a crucial step forward in its contribution to addressing relationships between human rights and climate change by appointing a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change.

The Special Rapporteur will face challenges arising from the breadth of the mandate, a wide range of different expectations of where priorities lie, and limited dedicated professional resources. To maximize the potential of this new mandate to enhance climate action, the chosen mandate-holder will need to establish clear, carefully considered priorities; provide leadership for and catalyze the efforts of human rights experts and activists; and adopt a pragmatic action-oriented approach.

The Council’s Consultative Group has nominated Ian Fry of Tuvalu, senior lecturer at the Australian National University of Canberra and previously Ambassador for Climate Change and Environment for the Government of Tuvalu, and Astrid Puentes Riaño of Mexico, independent consultant currently working at the American University Washington Law School. They were chosen from a strong field of 26 applicants.

On the basis of these nominations, the President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Federico Villegas, has proposed Ian Fry for appointment as Special Rapporteur. The Council will make its final decision at the end of March, and normally the new mandate-holder will take office on 1 May 2022 for an initial three-year term, renewable once.

With some exceptions, largely in the field of litigation, the global human rights community continues to struggle to apply the force of human rights to shaping climate action. Great expectations await the new Special Rapporteur whose work will be both urgent and important. The scope of the mandate is very large, as spelled out in 14 often-detailed sub-paragraphs of resolution 48/14, and it will be important for the new Special Rapporteur to select priorities carefully.

One can get a sense of the many competing priorities by examining the January 2021 report on consultations organized by leading NGOs with civil society, Indigenous Peoples, local communities and climate and human rights experts across the world in late 2020. That report also reveals significant regional variations in what is expected of a Special Rapporteur on climate change. Those variations are not limited to civil society.

Resolution 48/14 stipulates that the Special Rapporteur on climate change is to report to the 50th session of the HRC, which is scheduled to start on 13 June 2022. The new mandate-holder should resist pressure and the temptation to act in haste by setting out a program of work in the report to that session.

Rather, the Special Rapporteur could use the first report to take stock of the extensive body of work on climate change already done by other Special Procedures, treaty bodies, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other parts of the UN system. Such a stocktaking would help the Special Rapporteur avoid doing what is already well in hand and could serve as the basis for further cross-regional consultations aimed at informing the Special Rapporteur’s priorities and plan of action for the report to the 77th session of the UN General Assembly for consideration in October 2022.

The Special Rapporteur should aspire to provide focus and catalyze leadership for human rights thought and action on climate action. The mandate needs to complement and go beyond, but not displace, the work of other Special Procedures, other human rights mechanisms and activists on climate action. It must avoid the “blah, blah, blah” that has characterized far too much discussion and be directed to practical pragmatic measures to support climate action. It should encourage others to do likewise.

Much greater attention to human rights in climate action at the national level is essential. The Special Rapporteur has an important role to play there, for instance, in drawing on state good practice to provide guidance for taking account of human rights in the elaboration and revision of nationally determined contributions and the preparation of submissions for the Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement. Considered proposals for action-oriented measures are required to protect the rights of the most vulnerable persons and populations, notably those whose very existence is threatened by the devastating impact of climate change.

The mandate needs to complement and go beyond, but not displace, the work of other Special Procedures, other human rights mechanisms and activists on climate action.

The Special Rapporteur should stimulate the development and application of measures to support the just transitions required globally to address climate change. These would include guidance for rights-based democratic public consultations and for human rights impact assessments of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.

In the face of a challenging and important mandate, it is essential that the Special Rapporteur has the necessary support from scientists, civil society, and other interested third parties. However, the integrity and independence of the Special Rapporteur also requires substantial dedicated professional support attached to the mandate. At present, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights usually provides only limited junior staff support for each Special Procedure mandate.

The foreseeable dearth of resources must be remedied quickly if the Special Rapporteur is to begin to fulfill the mandate set out in resolution 48/14. In 2019 the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a coalition of 55 mostly low and lower-middle income developing countries, pledged $50,000 to support a Special Rapporteur on climate change. Donors with far greater financial resources must make commensurate contributions to support the new mandate.  

If governments and businesses begin to truly rise to the magnitude and urgency of action required to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels before it’s too late, the scope and pace of economic and social change required will be unprecedented. The prevailing conditions will be a recipe to “move fast and break things” unless care is taken to protect fundamental values like those reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and aspired to in the Sustainable Development Goals. Human rights standards are safeguards to be used to minimize breaking things and to help build acceptance and preserve popular support for the many unprecedented measures required by climate action.

By making the right choices and with the necessary support, the Special Rapporteur on climate change can play an important guiding role in efforts to ensure that climate action is guided by human rights. The Special Rapporteur’s journey on that important mission starts this month.