Shutterstock Image.
Shutterstock Image.

The United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights was held in Geneva November 16-18, 2105.  One topic that has not previously received much attention at the Forum is climate change. The relationship between human rights and the environment is currently the subject of study by the special procedure mandate holder Professor John Knox, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. Professor Knox has completed a mapping of human rights affected by climate change, and has contributed to statements together with other Human Rights Council special procedures mandate holders including a 2015 joint statement that describes climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our generation, and it is our generation that must meet it.” 

In this spirit, a side event on the topic of Business, Human Rights, and Climate Change was held on Tuesday November 17, moderated by Basil Ugochukwu. Basil reminded the audience of the twentieth anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer/environmentalist and eight other Ogoni leaders for peaceful opposition to oil pollution in Nigeria. Wiwa saw in the 1990s the future that the world grapples with today regarding the impact of oil extraction on the environment. He took on big business and the then military regime in Nigeria, and paid with his life in the process.

Conor Linehan, a partner with William Fry, began the panel with a discussion of his work as Vice-Chair of the International Bar Association (IBA)’s Task Force on Climate Justice and Human Rights, which resulted in the IBA’s 2014 Climate Justice Report. Conor outlined the many recommendations in the report for businesses, states, and international organizations, and noted his role as co-chair of the IBA Working Group on Adaptation. He also drew attention to other initiatives of the IBA that could assist in implementation of business responsibilities for human rights, such as the development of guidance for lawyers.

Roger Martella, a partner with Sidley Austen LLP, and also Vice Chair of the IBA President’s Task Force on Climate Justice and Human Rights, spoke of the importance of having the proper legal framework for climate change accountability. He described various litigation efforts around the world designed to force governmental action on climate change. While courts may be reluctant to tell governments exactly what they must do, they are generally willing to tell governments that they must do something.  Roger also noted the ongoing work at the IBA and his role as vice chair of the IBA’s Working Group on a Model Statute for Climate Change Remedies.

Jessica Simor QC, Matrix Chambers spoke about her work as a member of the Oslo Principles Expert Group on Global Climate Obligations. The aim of the Expert Group was in part to generate momentum leading to the upcoming Paris Summit. Drawing upon general principles of international law, the Oslo Principles reflect existing obligations under international law for states and enterprises, including the precautionary principle, which is endorsed by the Global Compact.

Finally, Sara Seck spoke of her research project as a Senior Fellow with CIGI’s International Law Research Program. She is preparing a report that will map the current state of guidance on business responsibilities for human rights affected by climate change, and identify where new and enriched guidance is needed, with consideration given to specific industry sectors (tentatively, extractives, insurance, agriculture/food, and investment/finance). She expressed appreciation for the IBA Climate Justice Report, the Oslo Principles, and the role of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s website in profiling the issue of climate change. However, she noted that overall work explicitly linking climate change with the business responsibility for human rights as articulated in second pillar of the UN Guiding Principles is in its infancy, and that the business and human rights community could play an important role in developing guidance to address the climate change problem.

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