UN Body Finds That Human Rights Treaty Requires Climate Action

By Jessica Wentz

On June 23 the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a statement recognizing that the failure to take adequate action on climate change may rise to a violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Committee, a body of independent experts that monitors compliance with the ICESR for the UN Economic and Social Council, made the following observations and recommendations during its review of Australia’s implementation of the treaty:

The Committee is concerned about the continued increase of CO2 emissions in the State party, at risk of worsening in the coming years, despite the State party’s commitments as a developed country under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as its Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. The Committee is also concerned that environmental protection has decreased in recent years as shown by the repeal of the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2013, and the State party’s ongoing support to new coal mines and coal-fired power stations. The Committee is also concerned that climate change is disproportionately affecting the enjoyment of Covenant rights by indigenous peoples.

The Committee recommends that the State party revise its climate change and energy policies, as indicated during the dialogue. It recommends that the State party take immediate measures aimed at reversing the current trend of increasing absolute emissions of greenhouse gases, and pursue alternative and renewable energy production. The Committee also encourages the State party to review its position in support of coal mines and coal export. The Committee further recommends that the State party address the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples more effectively while fully engaging indigenous peoples in related policy and programme design and implementation.

These findings were informed by a report submitted to the Committee by the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR).

While many UN human rights bodies have recognized that climate change interferes with the full enjoyment of human rights, this is the first time that a UN body has found, in essence, that a specific country has violated its human rights obligations due to inaction on climate change.

The Committee’s position is similar to that of various national courts which have found that government inaction on climate change amounts to a violation of fundamental human rights and/or constitutional obligations to protect the health and welfare of citizens. Noteworthy examples include the Urgenda decision in the Netherlands, and the Leghari decision in Pakistan. A complete list of these cases is available on our international climate litigation database. A similar lawsuit is also pending in the U.S. – in Juliana v. U.S., youth plaintiffs have alleged that the federal government has violated its public trust obligations and their substantive due process rights by failing to restrict fossil fuel development and use. The trial for that case has been scheduled for February 5, 2018.

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