Bianca Jagger: accountability key to cutting human cost of climate change

By Rebecca Lowe

Related links

New mechanisms are urgently needed to hold corporations and states legally accountable for harm to the environment, according to leading environmental experts speaking at the IBA Annual Conference in Boston.

Unchecked climate change is predicted to cause severe increases in sea level, floods and droughts, triggering mass displacement, food shortages and disease. Yet, while states have a legal duty to protect the human rights of citizens, there is currently no global treaty that recognises people’s right to a healthy environment.

Addressing a packed auditorium of 250 lawyers, Sir Crispin Tickell, former President of the Royal Geographical Society and former UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations, voiced frustration at the lack of global cooperation to address climate justice. The absence of both an international court to deal with environmental violations and a world environmental organisation to bring together the ‘many limited agreements’ addressing climate change ‘has led to a widespread failure to recognise the relevance of human rights in dealing with environmental issues’, he said.

Speaking alongside Tickell, John Knox, the first UN independent expert on human rights and the environment, appointed in 2012, voiced support for an international environmental court, but said historically such an idea had received scant support from the global community. However, now that more states were starting to bring environmental claims to the International Court of Justice – the principal judicial organ of the UN, without criminal jurisdiction – Knox conceded that the political climate may be changing.


‘We need to have accountability, to put an end to the culture of impunity among corporations

Bianca Jagger
Leading environmentalist and Chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation

Excerpt from IBA interview with Bianca Jagger (2:02)


‘Despite the lack of success in the past, maybe this is an opportune time to push for an international court for the environment again,’ he said. ‘But history does not inspire one with much confidence that states will rush to adopt it.’

Leading environmentalist Bianca Jagger, Chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, believes a better idea may be to incorporate environmental abuses – or ‘crimes against present and future generations’ – under the mandate of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Currently, the Court’s docket includes only the most serious human rights violations: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

Jagger’s main aim, she told IBA Global Insight in an exclusive interview in Boston, was to hold multinational corporations to account. ‘When they were setting up the ICC, they talked about ecocide and it was defined in a very similar way to what I’m working on now,’ she said. ‘In the end they left it behind, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t take it on again. What we need […] is to realise that we need to have accountability, that we need to put an end to the culture of impunity among corporations […]. The mechanisms we have are non-enforceable and most of them are volunteer. They can shame a corporation but not make them accountable before a court of law.’

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published in September, states that global warming is likely to exceed 2°C by the end of the century – even if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced. This would wreak devastation on the planet and potentially lead to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people across the world, according to scientists in the field. Island nations such as the Maldives and Bahamas are likely to be devastated due to sea level rise.

Despite the warnings, there has been very little discussion on where displaced people will go. Speaking at the conference, environmental lawyer Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Colombia Law School, said it was imperative for the ‘major emitting nations’ to take responsibility. Australia, Canada, Russia, the US and others should accept a share of the displaced people in proportion to their contribution to the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, he argued – with the exception of China, the worst polluter, which would have its own internal devastation to deal with.


‘[There is] a widespread failure to recognise the relevance of human rights in dealing with environmental issues

Sir Crispin Tickell
Former President of the Royal Geographical Society and former UK Permanent Representative to the UN

Excerpt from address by Sir Crispin Tickell at IBA Annual Conference (2:05)


Creating such an agreement would be extremely difficult, he conceded, because ‘there is not a country in the world that has expressed any interest whatsoever in taking in climate displaced people’. However, he added: ‘The decade will come when the world will have to be confronted with the issue of who will have to take these people, or else we will see reports every day of ships floundering and people dying – and that will be unacceptable.’

Gerrard described the agreement made at the 2011 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, as ‘the saddest sentence in all of international environmental law’. The convention sought to carve out the first legally binding global treaty on limiting carbon emissions, but the participants could only agree to strike a deal by 2015, which would come into force in 2020. ‘We lost more than a decade in coming forward with an agreement,’ Gerrard said.

Jagger, who attended the talks, agreed. ‘It was such a low point; it was shocking. To think that was the best we can offer to present and future generations.’ The IBA Task Force on Climate Change Justice and Human Rights, established last year following a call to arms from former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, must bring about accountability, Jagger said. ‘Durban was an abdication of world leaders’ responsibility, the fact they were incapable of coming together and signing onto a treaty that will be enforceable. We continue to use these volunteer measures […]. This needs to stop.’