Turning a corner: The bumpy road to doing right by people and planet

With COP26 underway, Kate Sullivan reflects on the recent adoption of UN Human Rights Council Resolution (48/13).

“But it isn’t binding so what’s the point?” asked my friend while we discussed UN Human Rights Council Resolution (48/13), recognising access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right. It’s a fair reflection: policies that can’t be enforced often feel like false progress, a pat on the back that allows us to defer concrete actions and accountability. But I think it’s a bit more complicated.

Cause for despair

It’s easy to feel pessimistic. The threat that climate change and biodiversity loss poses to the realisation of human rights, such as the rights to food, adequate housing, health, and even life, is widely recognised and accelerating. Yet, global solutions to these threats don’t always take human rights dimensions into account. Even if taken individually, the state of climate action and implementation of human rights obligations leave much to be desired.

Since producing the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, states’ ambitions on climate action seem to have stagnated and, in the wake of COVID-19, even regressed. On 31 October, 25,000 people  assembled in Glasgow for COP26 to negotiate commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to discuss how these changes and adaptation efforts should be financed. But the heads of state of China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, and Russia did not attend, and whispers of further UK aid budget cuts cast a shadow over the event.

Like climate action, human rights have also suffered major setbacks in the last several years. Due to shrinking civic space and oppressive operating environments resulting from democratic backsliding, human rights advocates have been forced to play defence rather than advocating for unrealised rights or to holding global actors to account for implementing existing commitments. This predicament is a case of distraction, wherein states are struggling to manage multiple simultaneous challenges, of trade-offs due to resource constraints exacerbated by a 3.3 per cent loss in global GDP in 2020, and of exploitation, with officials using the public health and economic crises brought about by COVID-19 to justify inequitable responses and the imposition of draconian measures. Yeah, it’s bleak.

Retracing our steps

So how did we get here? One could argue that some of the structures governing human rights and climate action do not have equivalent authority as corresponding structures governing peace and security. For instance, the UN Security Council, however flawed, has the authority to establish peacekeeping operations, enact sanctions, authorise military action and issue resolutions that are binding on UN Member States. While human rights treaty bodies monitor binding conventions, the Human Rights Council, which is a subsidiary of the General Assembly, doesn’t wield the same type of power as the UN Security Council. Although the Security Council’s mandate doesn’t necessarily result in more accountability, it does contribute to an incentive structure wherein certain actions, like invading a neighbour country or using chemical weapons, are expected to precipitate swift consequences and others, like interring minorities or repressing political opponents, are not.

Climate change, which cuts across all three UN pillars, does not have an institutional home within the organisation. Instead, climate governance is fragmented across various multilateral agreements and agencies, like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, international normative frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals, and in the work of the UN Environment Programme, as well as a range of initiatives outside the UN system.

Multilateral financing also plays an important role. Although theoretically equal in importance to peace and security and development (according to the UN Charter), the distribution of UN resources to human rights relegates it to a much lesser position. As outlined in our 2021 report, Financing the UN Development System: Time to Meet the Moment, human rights received only 3.7 per cent of the UN’s regular budget, compared to 17.9 per cent for development and 27.4 per cent for peace and security (i.e., political affairs). In the same vein, the UN’s environmental and climate change-related SDG expenditure, “is relatively low in relation to their importance and interlinkage to the fulfilment of other goals.”

The tragedy of the commons is nothing new: Failure to invest in and take ownership for global public goods is a longstanding challenge that has contributed to the degradation of natural resources and public institutions for as long as modern society has existed. What distinguishes today’s discussion from their predecessors is the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change and its intersection with other global challenges.

Over the last 50 years, there have also been dramatic developments in our understanding of both climate change and human rights due to scientific and social developments, respectively. The rate of development in these fields makes it difficult to build consensus on how each should be addressed, especially in light of disinformation campaigns and conflicts between developments and long-held views and practices.

Not surprisingly, the uptake in normative change among groups often corresponds to the extent to which they are directly impacted by the problem. Those in power benefit from the status quo, whereas those who are in the most vulnerable situations and exposed to the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and human rights abuses tend to have the least possibility to shape the instruments and structures governing them. Consider the agency of Small Island Developing States relative to that of top emitting superpowers like the US and China, or of indigenous populations and pastoralists relative to the corporations and investors benefitting from depleting the natural resources upon which they depend.

Many a little makes a mickle

Non-binding resolutions, declarations, codes of conduct, guidelines, and other types of so-called ‘soft law’ may be transformed into treaties, customary law or binding resolutions when there is sufficient consensus. But soft law also has utility as an end in itself. It compliments and supplements existing treaties, and, as Chatham House’s Drs. Guruparan and Zerk noted recently, soft law-making provides for the inclusion of non-state actors, like civil society organisations, corporations and social movements, in global governance which is otherwise chiefly limited to states.

Although it is not enforceable, Resolution 48/13 establishes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a new international normative standard, generating recognition for environmental justice that human rights defenders can leverage to advocate for their work, thereby reducing risks and costs. It also reinforces, at the international level, different formulations of the right to a healthy environment in national legislation in over 150 states and in regional human rights treaties.

Environmentalists, human rights advocates, Member State champions, and multilateral institutions have been pushing the boundaries of environmental justice for years. In fact, the Human Rights Council has been working on human rights and the environment since 2012, having adopted seven resolutions, appointed an independent expert and two special rapporteurs. The newly established Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and the Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights in the context of climate change, exist to monitor and support implementation of obligations at the people-planet nexus.  Each of these small, strategic advances has laid the groundwork for the next measure, with the rate of change accelerating over the last few years.

Anchoring change

So, what will it take to convert these incremental developments into long-term change? On 17 September, Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, respectively delivered the 2019 and 2021 Dag Hammarskjöld Lectures in Uppsala. Although the two lectures diverge in their perspectives, together with and the subsequent dialogue, they also provide common guidance on how to achieve long-term transformation at the people-planet nexus.

We need a bold new vision for the post-COVID world. Because they are urgent, challenges like halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 require us to work with the tools we have. But addressing existential threats is only part of the equation, they agreed. We must imagine a more equitable and just system and be prepared to build the institutions and instruments required to sustain it. For instance, the gap between the 19th Century principles upon which international law is based and the 21st century reality prevents it from addressing trans-boundary information flows or protecting biodiversity, Callamard explained. Crises like climate change and COVID serve as test cases, Figueres elaborated, allowing us to exercise different modes of cooperation and to learn from those experiences as we rebuild.

We need to reconceptualise leadership. Pointing to the decentralisation of the music, energy and banking industries, Figueres reflected that the leadership of the future will likely be distributed, and that this may be more effective given the complex local manifestations of global challenges. Callamard reinforced this view, citing city-level engagement in global climate action and refugee resettlement, and the transformative power of social protest movements. The shift towards distributed leadership may correspond to the failures of states to deliver solutions. Considering evidence from COVID and the climate crisis, both lectures stressed that democratic regimes have not lived up to the principles of equality, representation and justice. Where states have not delivered, communities are stepping up to fill the leadership void, both realising and generating greater demand for inclusivity and local ownership.

We need to load the dice in favour of where we want to be. Given humanity’s equal capacity for harm and for good, the lecturers highlighted, we need to proactively cultivate the space for constructive engagement. At the institutional level, this means being prepared to confront the shortcomings of our current systems and approaches and to create new incentives. At the individual and group levels, this obliges us to work together, and to courageously defend and practice our values, especially equality, justice, and solidarity.

Getting back to my friend’s question: What constitutes legitimate progress? Radical transformation rarely happens overnight but a shift is already becoming evident. That Resolution 48/13 was adopted without a single objection -Russia, China, India, and Japan abstained- is a pretty good indicator of how far we’ve come. As for environmental protection, human rights and their intersection, I think we’ve are just reaching the tipping point. Whether it will be enough to push us into the next paradigm remains to be seen.

Kate Sullivan By Kate Sullivan

Kate Sullivan supported the Foundation’s programmatic work with external relations and strategic planning from 2020-2022. Before joining the Foundation, Kate held positions at the Global Challenges Foundation, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Global Partnership Alliance, the U.S. Peace Corps and United Technologies Corporation. She holds a Master in Public Administration from the George Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan. Kate is a Paul Harris Fellow (Rotary) and a member of the three-time world champion Rönninge Show Chorus.