Climate laws inadequate to protect human rights – new legal frameworks needed, states new IBA report

The human rights of the world’s most vulnerable will be severely threatened unless urgent action is taken to improve access to justice and legal frameworks for people affected by climate change, concludes a new report by the International Bar Association (IBA) Task Force on Climate Change Justice and Human Rights.

Published today, the ground-breaking 240-page report Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption finds that, while climate change affects everyone, it disproportionately strikes those who have contributed to it the least and lack the resources to respond. The Report assesses the severe challenges currently facing national and international legal regimes which are poorly suited to provide legal remedies to those most affected, and outlines concrete recommendations for reform to create climate change justice structures that actively help protect and preserve environmental and human rights.  

The Report’s key recommendations include:

  • Legal recognition for a new universal human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment;
  • Creation of  a new international dispute resolution structure for climate change issues, including a new specialist International Court on the Environment – and, in the interim, for States to recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and, in arbitrations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague;
  • Greening bilateral investment treaties and free trade agreements to include state and investor party obligations to comply with environmental laws, climate change commitments and to provide precedence to environmental and climate friendly laws over conflicting trade measures;
  • The issuing of World Trade Organisation guidelines reassuring states that trade-related measures motivated by climate concerns will not fall foul of WTO trading rules, and that economic subsidies be rebalanced in favour of climate-friendly technologies and against fossil fuels;
  • Inclusion of a cumulative carbon budget in the United Nations Climate Change Multilateral Framework to achieve a 2°C temperature rise limit;
  • Increasing corporate responsibility to recognise how climate change impacts on human rights and to implement policies to achieve greater environmental awareness and greater corporate/regulator liaison on group-wide greenhouse gas measurement, reporting and disclosure; and
  • Using the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process to highlight climate justice concerns for developing countries before a broad audience.

Through the more than 50 recommendations, proposed across short, medium and long-term timeframes, the Task Force calls on world leaders, policymakers, lawyers, corporations, trade bodies, human rights bodies, communities, scientists and individuals to take ‘joint, bold action’ to achieve climate change justice. The Report’s recommendations are the result of a comprehensive survey of domestic and international law relevant to climate change and of the ways in which these laws and legal systems impede or constrain the realisation of climate justice and human rights.

Mary Robinson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, comments in the Report’s Foreword, ‘With the publication of this report I have to say that the IBA has surpassed my expectations and delivered an excellent contribution to the understanding of climate justice and the role of human rights law in addressing the climate challenge. Through this Report the legal community embraces climate justice, elucidates the links between climate change and human rights and makes clear recommendations on ways to secure justice for those affected by climate impacts.

The Task Force, co-chaired by David Estrin, Chair of the IBA’s Environment Health and Safety Law Committee, and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, emphasises that the time for action is now and that unless reforms are put in place, current effects – including increased incidence of worsening droughts, hurricanes and heatwaves – are likely to be ‘dwarfed by the future consequences of climate change’. These include rising sea levels, unprecedented weather disasters, depleted freshwater reserves, vanishing ecosystems and food supplies, as well as risk of serious social disruption, lost livelihoods, mass displacements of peoples, and loss of cultural, family, community and language continuity.

IBA President Michael Reynolds said, ‘Existing legal mechanisms addressing mitigation, adaptation and remediation of climate change are failing to cope with the scale of the global issue and its wide-ranging impact on individuals, leaving climate change justice issues unaddressed. That climate change raises concerns of ethics and justice is now without question.’ He added, ‘The significance of Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption lies in how it assists with moving from understanding to action. The Task Force points the way forward in translating climate justice into effective legal justice, with a series of proposals that are guided in scientific consensus, in the reality of international climate policy and in the urgency of real life impacts on individuals and communities.’

Click here to download the report: Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption. (See pages 1–31 for the Executive Summary, Recommendations and Action Matrix).

Click here to download a media briefing on the report, its authors and its important issues and recommendations.

Notes to the Editor

  1. The findings and recommendations of the Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption report will be presented to IBA delegates on Wednesday 22 October 2014 at a Showcase session during the IBA’s Annual Conference in Tokyo, Japan. Participating keynote speakers include champions of climate justice: Al Gore, 45th US Vice-President; Mary Robinson former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Felipe Calderón Chair, Global Commission on the New Climate Economy and former President of Mexico; and Mohamed Nasheed former President of the Maldive Islands and a leader of international action to curb greenhouse gas emissions that threaten his and other island nations.
  2. The concept for the Task Force report originated as a response to the ‘New Justice Challenge for the IBA’ put forward by Mary Robinson at the IBA Annual Conference 2012 in Dublin. She introduced the concept of climate justice and proposed that the IBA convene a working group to provide leadership in shaping the global response to climate change. Michael Reynolds, the then newly elected IBA President, accepted the challenge and created the Task Force in November 2012 with the keen support of IBA Vice-President, David W Rivkin, and Michael Greene, IBA Legal Practice Division (LPD) Chair.

    In early 2013 Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Co-Chair of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), and David Estrin, Chair of the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee, were appointed as Co-Chairs of the Task Force on Climate Justice and Human Rights, together with three Vice-Chairs: Catherine M Amirfar; Conor Linehan and Roger R Martella, Jr. The Task Force appointed academic advisor, Stephen Humphreys, PhD, Associate Professor of International Law, London School of Economics, who provided invaluable advice and substantive input. Task Force members were also appointed, comprised of prominent legal and human rights experts, experienced legal practitioners and a senior environmental jurist. They made important contributions by providing guidance on key issues that the report should address, and reviewing various components of report drafts in order to offer critiques and advice.
  3. Click here for a full list of Task Force members.
  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), established in 1947, is the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership of individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations and law societies it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.

    The IBA’s administrative office is in London. Regional offices are located in: São Paulo, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; and Washington DC, US, while the International Bar Association’s International Criminal Court Programme (IBA ICC) is managed from an office in The Hague.

    The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.

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