Human Rights and Climate Change

Briefing paper

Date produced: 19/07/2010

Over the past 60 years, the world has developed a modern human rights system founded in
international law. The primary instruments that comprise that framework are the:

  • United Nations Declaration on Human Rights 1948 (UNDHR);
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR); and
  • International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR).

States that have ratified human rights instruments are responsible for the implementation of those instruments. Obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all human beings are contained in various instruments. This includes refraining from interfering with, or curtailing the enjoyment of, human rights and positive obligations to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses – whether by private or government actors. The obligation to fulfil the human rights of all human beings means that positive action must be taken to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights and uphold those rights against threats.

Each of these major human rights treaties was developed before environmental degradation and climate change were recognised as threats to human security. Nevertheless, current human rights frameworks do capture a range of concerns that are pertinent to climate change, a primary example of which is found in the first article of the two main international human rights covenants – that is, the UNDHR and the ICCPR – where it states that “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”. This is clearly relevant where climate change is affecting access to basic subsistence needs such as water, food, shelter, and healthcare.

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution on human rights and climate change. The resolution was co-sponsored by 69 countries. The resolution recognises that climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights. The resolution requests that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) conduct a detailed study on human rights and climate change.

The 2009 Report on the relationship between climate change and human rights undertaken by the OHCHR outlined several significant points in relation to this subject. Most importantly, it concluded that States have duties to protect the human rights of those affected by climate change (including those who have been displaced).