Human Rights and Gender Equality in the Response to Climate Change

The Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok recently organized a regional workshop titled “URGENCY IN ACTION-Understanding Human Behavior and ensuring Human Rights and Gender Equality in the Response to Climate Change.”

The Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok organized the workshop to address climate change, which they say is a threat of our times that disproportionately affects people living in situations of poverty, marginalization and vulnerability. These people are also the ones that have contributed the least to the problem. Climate change has a direct impact on our planet, and the consequences will be suffered by future generations as well. We all have a responsibility to prevent this from happening.

It was against this background that the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok decided to organize this workshop. During the first day and after setting up the scene, a panel discussion on Human Rights and Gender Equality in responses to climate change took place. The discussion centered on the interconnections between human rights, gender and climate change. Panel members also discussed how the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are linked.


RWI’s director Morten Kjaerum shared the panel with Cecilia Aipira (UN-Women), Ayala de Leon (Parabukas) and Jonathan Gilman (TBC), and talked about how the international human rights system can address and prevent climate change.

He highlighted the role of accountability mechanisms for States and guiding principles for corporations and non-state actors. He said that human rights demand equal rights and participation for women and men and special protection measures for persons in vulnerable situations.

A group discussion followed about the use of a human rights-based approach as a tool to climate change actions, moderated by RWI’s programme officer Helena Olsson.

Helena Olsson

When asked about the motivation to participate in this workshop, she said “The effects of climate change on people are very real and very concrete in Asia today. It is important, even urgent, to recognise the human rights violations involved here and in other regions of the world.” She added: “Doing that changes the scene by engaging the human rights system and so, bringing State and corporate accountability into a field long seen as out of reach for policy or prevention.”


You can read Morten’s speech below.




10-11 May 2016

Thank you very much for the invitation to attend this very important workshop on climate change. There is hardly any other topic that is more urgent than this.

I was asked to address the question why human rights, gender equality human rights and business are important issues to include in relation to climate change.

According to disaster management definitions, something that happens in nature only becomes a disaster when it hits human beings. When the disaster happens the question is if it could have been avoided by preventing the flooding, the drought or the heat wave or by having protected the persons exposed to the disaster. If the disaster could have been avoided human rights are relevant to discuss.

Human rights can in this context be an additional tool to address climate change, as it was underscored in the Paris Agreement. First and foremost contrary to the voluntary commitments by states to reduce effects on global warming States parties to the human rights conventions have a legal commitment to respect, protect and fulfill these rights.

Human rights offer three things: clarity in procedures and accountability; a substantive legal framework; and mechanisms of enforcement. I will briefly touch these three features of human rights.

In relation to procedures and accountability freedom of expression, access to information and participation are key rights ensuring an empowered public discourse where in particular the affected communities – women and men – have sufficient insight and channels to participate in a meaningful manner.

Let me offer one example of what transparency and accountability contributes: With the extreme weather laws regulating the construction of houses are essential for the safety of ordinary people. These safety measures have proven effective many places when fully implemented. In other places the same standards have been adopted by parliaments but not implemented due to bad governance, in-transparency and/or deep corruption. This has in cases let to disasters.

Second, human rights offer a substantive legal framework for the victims to address these issues. The rights could be the right to life, right to health, right to education, right to housing, right to food. In most cases all of these would be of relevance, however each case has to be analysed to identify the relevant norm(s) for the issues at stake.

In many case the protection against discrimination will be of high relevance. Often the disasters hit indigenous peoples, ethnic or religious minorities. Key question are, why are they pushed to high-risk areas and why has nothing been done to address their vulnerability in a timely manner by the relevant state actors?

When it comes to the gender link, human rights demand equal rights and participation of women and men. It also comes with guarantees of protection for persons in vulnerable situations, where gender, combined with poverty, certain ethnic backgrounds, and not least mobility, are factors, that increases risks in the face of disaster and social decay.

In this region we see millions of women becoming migrant workers – often domestic workers – due to climate change. Therefor the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and other Conventions are of essence for mitigating their vulnerability.

Thirdly, human rights are legal norms and therefor in principle enforceable. The HR system is built on the idea of duty bearers and rights holders, and principles of accountability between these two. So they can be claimed against international, regional and national human rights bodies and courts.

The international system includes expert bodies for different rights and conventions who scrutinize State performance periodically or treat individual complaints. In the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination we raised questions when examining countries in this region in relation to land grapping and illegal foresting destroying the livelihood of indigenous peoples. Here the interaction between the Civil Society Organizations and the Committee was of high importance.

On regional levels the African, American and European systems have courts and commissions. In Asian there is not a similar system as in other regions, however in the region there are many rather strong National Human Rights Institutions that work closely together in the Asia-Pcific Forum for NHRIs. At the national level NHRIs, receive complaints and intervene. They have wide mandates and independent roles to monitor, investigate individual and systemic HR issues. They are often mandated to comment on drat legislation and interact with parliament.

So where does the private sector enter into the picture? Human rights are first and foremost for states, but private sector is key to any change when it comes to climate change.

For many years the link between human rights and the private sector was discussed. In 2011 the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business were adopted. The principles do not contradict the accountability framework of human rights. It is still the state that is the duty bearer. What they add is the responsibilities for private sector to human rights due diligence, respect, and contribute to remedying violations.

One measure of due diligence that is already in place in many corporations is the “impact assessment” tools. Environmental impact assessments, including a certain level of community consultations, are increasingly performed at the outset of infrastructure projects, and so are the equivalent human rights impact assessments. The Asia Pacific Forum of NHRIs already in 2007 called for coordinated assessments, which increasingly seems relevant.

Finally, I would like to mention one key actor that is often overlooked in these discussions, but surfaced with strength at the Paris meeting namely the City. Cities are playing a still stronger role and we need to discuss how they can be included more actively in these discussions. In Sweden the Raoul Wallenberg Institute and the Association of Swedish Municipalities and Regions have teamed up to assist in developing more human rights based cities in Sweden. And for sure the climate issue will be part of that work. I look forward to adding that to the discussion in the future.

Thank you for your attention.

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