NGOs warn human rights are being sidelined at UN climate talks

Rights groups express concerns about the direction of negotiations, as Polish authorities clamp down on environmental activists

Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the UN, has intervened to try to get countries to agree a deal at COP24. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Human rights commitments agreed as part of the Paris climate agreement are being written out during negotiations at COP24, NGOs have warned.

The news comes as the conference in Katowice, Poland faces controversy over the treatment of activists trying to attend the event. At least a dozen environmental defenders have been stopped from attending COP24 by Polish authorities.

At the landmark UN conference in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to incorporate the promotion of human rights into their climate action plans.

But as delegates come together to try and agree a “rulebook” on how to achieve the Paris goals, there are concerns that human rights are being sidelined.

References to human rights contained in guidance for the planning of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) have been removed by negotiators at COP24. NDCs are the commitments countries will set themselves to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change and are a key component of the Paris deal.

At the time of writing, the most recent versions of the guidance text does not contain references to human rights and activists are concerned that the term will not appear in the final text at the end of negotiations. Unearthed understands that the United States and Saudi Arabia are among the states that oppose the inclusion of human rights in the guidance.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on indigenous rights said the move was a sign that the talks are not moving in the right direction. She said: “This is a very bad sign, especially for those people whose rights are violated on a daily basis, which includes indigenous people.”

She claimed traditional defenders of human rights found themselves outnumbered at COP24. Her comments were echoed by Sebastien Duyck, senior attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law.  

He told Unearthed: “There hasn’t been enough champions of human rights in relation to the NDCs, during the plenary sessions. Some countries have called for the text to be streamlined and references to human rights have been removed. It’s been disappointing to see countries not speak out about this.”

Katharina Rall, environment researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Unearthed: “The crackdown [on] environmental activists at COP24 underscores the need to integrate human rights into the Paris Rulebook. Ambitious climate action is only possible if human rights are respected.”

Fanny Petitbon, advocacy manager at international development NGO Care France, suggested that negotiators had seemed “to forget that COP24 is about delivering on the Paris promises which requires much higher ambition to stay below 1.5°C but also to implement meaningful climate action which reduces inequalities and empowers individuals.”

In recent years global politics has been marked by the rise of populism in Europe and beyond. Last week, researchers at Irish think tank the Institute of International and European Affairs warned that the momentum generated by the Paris agreement was being stalled by President Donald Trump’s decision to take the US out of the deal and renege on a number of Obama-era environmental laws. The research suggested the “Trump effect” was emboldening populists around the world.

Human rights groups have expressed alarm at the treatment of activists at COP24.

Duyck said: “The situation around Poland is that environmental advocates who have engaged in advocacy at their national level seem to have been blacklisted by the government.”

He also said that the situation at this conference was worse than previous talks. “There have been issues at other COPs with one or two Visas being denied,” he argued. “But the number of cases we are witnessing at the moment is really beyond what we’ve seen at a recent COP.”

Even before the start of COP24, NGOs expressed alarm after the Polish government signed legislation into law that would make it more difficult for environmental activists to operate in the country, including forbidding spontaneous demonstrations during the talks in Katowice.

The talks are due to finish this Friday, with delegates hoping to have a framework in place to meet the goals of the Paris agreement and keep the global temperature increases within safe levels of warming.