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Human Rights


It is widely recognized that human rights, and particularly the rights of children, are adversely impacted by climate change. Many human rights as included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance the right to life, health, food, water, and housing, are directly impacted and undermined by climate change. At the same time, human rights must be the basis for effective and ambitious mitigation and adaptation action in order to address the negative impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of fundamental rights, prevent adverse effects of mitigation and adaptation actions and to enhance ambition in climate action.

Whilst the “right to a healthy environment” is not formally recognised, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment  has presented reports to the Human Rights Council on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as dedicated reports on the right to a safe climate, and children’s rights and the environment, amongst others. Reports can be found here.

Climate change is a transboundary issue. Greenhouse gas emissions do not remain within state borders and therefore threaten the human rights of individuals across the globe. Climate-related displacement is already occurring and people are forced to leave their livelihood due to slow onset events, such as long-term reductions in rainfall as well as rapid onset events, such as storms and wildfires. According to the International Organization for Migration, by 2050, there could be 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants worldwide. Whilst most environmental migration occurs internally within nation states, many people will be forced to migrate internationally. 

Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published a report which outlines the looming threat of a ‘“climate apartheid’”, as even the best-case scenario of 1.5 °C global warming will push millions into poverty, food insecurity, and conflict.  Climate change further widens existing divisions of financial inequality in society as the wealthy will be able to pay to either adapt or escape the worst effects of climate change. Climate change and its consequences will likely impact civil and political rights and the maintenance of democracy, as inequality and discontent increase across the globe.


Climate change arguably poses the single biggest challenge to the realization of child rights, and threatens to undercut decades of the hard-won progress to improve the lives of children. Despite the catastrophic implications of climate change for children’s rights, as well as the growing global movement of children and youth calling for ambitious climate action, children and recognition of their rights barely feature in key international, regional and national frameworks and decision-making related to climate change, including the UNFCCC. This represents a violation of the fundamental principles guiding the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, notably that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in any decision that affects them, as well as their right to be heard. Children are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because their unique stage of physiological and cognitive development means that they are less-equipped to deal with climate-related stresses.


For example, young children are at higher risk than adults during heatwaves as they are less able to regulate their body temperature, and because they rely on others to control their surrounding environment. Children are also more likely to be injured, to experience psychological trauma, or to die during natural disasters than adults. The WHO estimates that climate change will lead to nearly 95,000 additional deaths per year due to undernutrition in children aged 5 and under by 2030, and an additional 24 million undernourished children by 2050. Rising temperatures are increasing the incidence of water- and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever. Children under the age of 5 already bear the global burden of these diseases, accounting for almost 80% of all deaths from malaria in 2014. Diarrhoeal disease is another leading cause of death among children, and is also set to increase as a result of drought, flooding and changing precipitation patterns, threatening safe water supplies and hygiene practices. By 2030, climate-related impacts are anticipated to result in 48,000 additional deaths due to diarrhoeal disease in children under the age of 15.

Many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change also have a higher proportion of children in their populations. According to UNICEF data, over half a billion children live in areas with extremely high risk of flooding; 115 million are at high or extremely high risk from tropical cyclones, and almost 160 million are exposed to high or extremely high drought severity. Demographic trends suggest that the countries most at risk are also those in which child populations tend to be growing most rapidly. These countries are more likely to have less resources and lower coping capacity, threatening poverty eradication efforts, and the realization of a growing number of children’s rights.


The Paris Agreement represented a watershed in recognizing the relevance of children’s rights for climate action (in the preamble), but this reference has yet to be operationalized.


370 million people worldwide identify themselves as indigenous. Indigenous people are particularly affected by climate change and environmental destruction due to the often close connection of indigenous peoples to nature and the environment. Whilst histories are globally diverse and cannot be generalized, indigenous peoples usually maintain deep cultural and spiritual ties to the land and ecosystems in their stewardship. Climate change exacerbates the challenges already faced by indigenous peoples, including the political and economic inequality, discrimination, loss of land and resources and the violation of their fundamental human rights (Short, 2014).

Indigenous-led strategies are seen as innovative tools for the management of conservation areas, environmental policy and management programmes. Hence, the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to land and the development of institutional mechanisms for cooperation and partnerships with local communities is crucial for the fulfilment of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of global as well as local mitigation, adaptation and conservation goals and targets (Garnett et al, 2018). The defence of human rights of Indigenous peoples thus becomes a matter of global relevance for climate justice.

Indigenous enb climate.jpg

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 reinforces the human rights of indigenous peoples, and extends universal rights to “a people united by cultural collective specificity”, acknowledging the group dimension of rights. However, many argue the Declaration fails to address root causes of exploitation of Indigenous Peoples by stressing sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state they reside in. This obviously creates dilemmas when state interests conflict with Indigenous Peoples’ rights, for instance, in Brazil where the construction of a multitude of dams across the Amazon region significantly impacts the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. 

With COP21 in Paris in 2015, decision 1/CP.21 paragraph 135 established the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP). The COP thereby recognized the importance of acknowledging the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples when addressing climate change. The platform is intended to share knowledge and experiences of good climate change policies and practices as well as build capacity for engagement. See here the work plan for the LCIPP for 2020-2021. 

The Facilitative Working Group of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform is a constituted body of the UNFCCC and was established in 2018 at COP24 in Katowice to put the LCIPP into action.


IN 2008, the UN Human Rights Council initiated reporting on the impacts of climate change on human rights. As a result of a lengthy advocacy strategy led by NGOs since the Cancuún Agreement, some human rights language was included within the Paris Agreement.


Human rights are included within the Preamble of the Paris Agreement, along with other concepts and rights such as the eradication of poverty, food security, just transition, right to health, of indigenous people, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity. Preambles of international treaties are not legally binding per se, but they are relevant under international law to provide the object and purpose of an agreement in terms of the treaty interpretation. In other words, preambles are taken into account to interpret the operative clauses of a treaty.

The Preamble contains different but not incompatible conceptions of human and environmental rights:

  • Anthropogenic approach, promoting human rights  
    “Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity” (United Nations, 2016: Preamble)

  • Ecocentric approach 
    “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change” (United Nations, 2016: Preamble)

  • Mentions protection of Mother Earth, but does not embrace Andean concept of “buen vivir” and the rights of Mother Earth (or Pachama) as established in Ecuador and Bolivia in 2010 People’s Agreement on the Rights of Mother Earth (which refers to climate change as general crisis caused by patriarchal and hierarchical form of civilisation)


Human rights have further been mentioned within several streams of the UNFCCC regime, namely the Gender Action Plan, the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform as well as the Executive Committee of the WIM for Loss and Damage. 

For more detailed information on UNFCCC decisions and their human rights dimensions, we recommend to have a look at CIEL’s report: Rights in a Changing Climate

COP 24

Human rights activists during COP 24 aimed to ensure that principles within the rulebook would become operational by including wording on human rights. However, COP24 did not lead to an inclusion of rights-based language within the rulebook. References to human rights in guidance for NDC planning were removed. According to Erika Lennon from the Center for International Environmental Law,  COP 24 outcomes are ‘not compatible with the Paris Agreement’, as it states that human rights shall be protected and respected in climate action and policies, which was not implemented in the parts of the Paris Rulebook established in Katowice.


SB 50

This trend continued at SB50. However, what stood out was the large number of side events relating to the topic, ranging from ‘Integrating human rights in Article 6 mechanisms’, to ‘Incorporating human rights in NDCs: Opportunities, good practices, and lessons learned’, as well as several events on the intersection of human rights and climate induced migration and the contribution of Indigenous Peoples in the fight against climate change and how their rights are impacted by climate change and deforestation.

Next to the negotiations, a wide range of stakeholders are engaged in proposals and advocacy to enhance the integration of human rights in climate policies, including civil society actors, UN agencies and governments. The Human Rights Cross Constituency Working Group unites different stakeholders taking part in the UNFCCC process, including members of YOUNGO, Gender, Trade Union constituencies which are organising to unite their efforts with regards to mainstreaming human rights in climate action. Of central importance in the advocacy work is the promotion of the inclusion of the following “Great 8” interconnected human rights aspects, which are included in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement, in all climate action and policies: 

  • Public Participation

  • Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities Rights

  • Just Transition for Workers

  • Gender Equality

  • Human Rights

  • Food Security

  • Ecosystem Integrity and Protection of Biodiversity

  • Intergenerational Equity


As stated by representatives from the transnational organization Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) in a side event on Indigenous Peoples’ contribution to climate action, Indigenous communities hold a vital role in climate change mitigation and adaptation, particularly with a view to tackling deforestation in the Amazon. Whilst it is important not to maintain a romanticized myth of all Indigenous Peoples being the protectors of nature, research has shown that within Indigenous territories in the Amazon, deforestation is significantly lower than in non-Indigenous territories.  

The Amazon forest and Indigenous territories are endangered through infrastructure projects, deforestation, extractivist, and development policies. Members of COICA stress the occurrence of an environmental and human rights emergency in the Amazon as governments in South America are opening up new territories for agriculture, for instance soy and beef farming.


COP 25

The relocation of COP 25 from Santiago de Chile to Madrid due to civil unrest in Chile raised important questions on human rights already before the beginning of the conference. Many important actors from civil society groups and indigenous peoples from Latin America did not have the chance to attend and make their voices heard, which made the topic of human rights and a just transition even more important.

Items on the agenda such as the review of the Lima Work Programme on Gender, the adoption of the work programme of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and discussions on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, referring to market mechanisms, brought the social and human rights dimensions of climate change to the center of attention. Article 6 must include human rights and environmental safeguards in order to avoid the shortcomings of the clean development mechanism. However no agreement was reached on this item and it was moved to COP26 in Glasgow. 

Important developments did however take place at the COP outside of the formal negotiations, including a high-level launch of a COP 25 Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action by the COP25 Presidency and other leading governments, YOUNGO, UNICEF and the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI). The Declaration, based on priorities identified by YOUNGO and inputs from children and youth across the world, is the first-of-its-kind commitment by States to accelerate inclusive, child- and youth-centered climate policies and action at national and global levels. Initially signed by 10 governments, all States are invited to sign.


2020 was intended to be a decisive year for climate politics, with many decisions/processes mandated to take place ‘by 2020’. As the new round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submissions is coming up, countries will need to scale up their ambitions radically in order to keep global warming below 1.5 °C in accordance with the findings of the IPCC special report. As presented by Jolein Holtz from the Centre for International Environmental Law at the “Incorporating human rights in NDCs” side event at SB50, “Human rights are the pathway to ambition”. As of now, there are 24 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (iNDCs) which included HR explicitly, 19 who referred to Indigenous Peoples, 71 on public participation, 59 on gender equality, and many to just transition. According to UNICEF, for the first round of NDCs, 42 per cent of all NDCs directly referenced children or youth while only 20 per cent mentioned children (under 18) specifically. Less than 2% of NDCs referred to children’s rights, despite near-universal ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Civil society has a responsibility to boost these numbers and drive nations and institutions towards change at the urgent pace required. Adopting a rights-based approach is essential to ensure human rights are respected in policy planning and guaranteeing no one is left behind.


  • The Human Rights and Climate working group gathers advocates from different constituencies, mainly from ENGO, the Women & Gender Constituency, and the Indigenous people’s platform.

  • OHCHR : UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner

  • UNICEF: United Nations Children’s Fund

  • Local communities and Indigenous People Platform

  • The Human Rights Working Group of YOUNGO

  • Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative, a global coalition spearheaded by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

  • IPCC reports confirming importance of anticipating human mobility caused by climate  change

  • Platform on Disasters Displacement and the Task Force on Displacement established under the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss & Damage 


Geneva Dialogues: Human Rights, Climate Change, Land and Human Mobility

CIEL, 2018. Katowice COP24 Outcome Incompatible With Paris Agreement. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 October 2020].

Duyck, S. and Holtz, J. (CIEL) and Mckernan L. (GI-ESCR), with research support by Gillieatt, J. (CIEL) (2019). States’ Human Rights Obligations in the Context of Climate Change [online] [Accessed 19 April 2020].


Garnett, S.T., Burgess, N.D., Fa, J.E. et al. (2018). A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation. Nat Sustain 1, 369–374.


Paris Agreement (Dec. 13, 2015), in UNFCCC, COP Report No. 21, Addenum, at 21, U.N. Doc. FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add, 1 (Jan. 29, 2016).


Short, L. (2014). Tradition versus Power: When Indigenous Customs and State Laws Conflict, Chicago Journal of International Law, 15 (1), pp. 376-408.  


Shadian, J. (2010). From states to polities: Reconceptualizing sovereignty through Inuit governance, European Journal of International Relations, 16 (3), pp 485-510. 

UNICEF (2019), Are Climate Policies Child-Sensitive? A Guide for Action: Summary


UNICEF (2015), Unless We Act Now: The impact of climate change on children


OHCHR (2017) Analytical Study on Child Rights and Climate Change


UNICEF, Malnutrition,


WHO, Nutrition: Stunting in a Nutshell:


WHO (2014), Quantitative Risk Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change on Selected Causes of Death, 2030s and 2050s.


WHO World Malaria Report, 2014,

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