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COP24: Human rights concerns cast a shadow over U.N. climate summit

A police officer guarding protesters during the climate march on Dec. 8, 2018, in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

  • A set of guidelines for putting the landmark Paris Climate Agreement into action has omitted references to human rights, a move that activists blame on the U.S. delegation at the ongoing climate summit in Katowice, Poland.
  • A top U.N. official and activists have denounced the omission, warning that no meaningful climate action can be taken without due reference to and respect for human rights, particularly those of indigenous peoples.
  • The Katowice talks have also been marred by reports that more than a dozen activists have either been denied entry into or deported from Poland, prompting concerns about who is allowed a voice at the discussions.

KATOWICE, Poland — Concerns about the apparent sidelining of human rights have been aired as the United Nations climate summit in Poland enters its second week.

According to the Climate Action Network (CAN), a worldwide coalition of more than 1,300 NGOs, the inclusion of a human rights reference in a set of guidelines for action was challenged by the United States, which argued that any such inclusion was an attempt to operationalize something that by definition wasn’t operational.

“The U.S. legal gymnastics to exclude the preamble suggests a hidden intention: further sidelining human rights from climate action,” the CAN said.

The coalition denounced the move as especially ironic, given that it came on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which falls on Dec. 10.

“In case the U.S. delegation here has forgotten, it was the United States and Eleanor Roosevelt who fought for the Declaration in 1948,” the CAN said.

The Paris Climate Agreement, struck in 2015, acknowledges the role of human rights in a climate change treaty, a result of years of advocacy by civil society organizations. Its preamble says “climate change is a common concern of humankind” and that “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.”

However, the latest draft of the Paris Agreement rulebook, a set of guidelines on how to put the climate accord into action, makes no references to human rights, according to Sébastien Duyck, a lawyer with the Center for International Environmental Law.

The ongoing summit in the Polish city of Katowice has been billed as the most important climate negotiations since the Paris summit three years ago because countries have to finalize the rulebook by the end of the conference in order to get the Paris Agreement rolling.

The implication of omitting a human rights reference from the climate rulebook is that future projects to tackle climate change could push indigenous communities out of their territories, according to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I’ve seen how renewable projects like wind farms and hydropower electric dams have been done without consultation with indigenous peoples,” she said at a press conference at the Katowice talks. “And in the process, indigenous peoples are expelled or worse yet, killed.”

There has been growing resistance to large renewable energy projects from many indigenous communities. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, for instance, indigenous groups have reported violations of their rights arising from wind power projects.

Some community members opposing these projects have faced threats of violence, detention, and even death.

A study by the U.K.-based nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Centre of 50 wind and hydropower companies around the world found most of the operators had failed to implement adequate diligence practices to prevent rights abuses. These include including identifying whether a project will impact indigenous peoples, or obtaining their consent prior to the start of a project.

“It’s very unfortunate to see that many references to human rights to live with dignity and health are not included in the recent draft that we’ve seen,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “My main message is to call on all governments and member states of the convention to put back the references to human rights. Unless this is done, we will see a situation where the most vulnerable sectors of the societies will be the ones who are suffering the most, including indigenous peoples.”

Duyck said the “social dimension of climate action has been systemically stripped out of most relevant aspects of the Paris Agreement implementing guideline.”

Protesters march towards the venue of the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Activists denied entry

The Katowice summit has also been marred by the reported denial of entry and deportation of climate activists by Polish authorities. At least 14 activists have been affected, under a recent Polish regulation banning spontaneous protests and allowing police surveillance at the climate talks, according to 350.org, an international environmental organization advocating for climate action.

Duyck said it was important to ensure the civil and political rights of all stakeholders were protected, not just inside the climate summit venue, but also outside, including their right to enter the country and express political opinions.

“It is a politically motivated rejection of entry into the Polish territory,” he said. “It demonstrates that the government of Poland has not yet awakened to the concept that the only effective climate action in order to reduce emissions and build resilience [is one] that really builds on public ownership and with public support. And we need active participation of all voices in the process, otherwise there will be no effective implementation of the Paris climate agreement.”

Asked about the incidents, Michał Kurtyka, secretary of state of the Polish environment ministry, who also presides over this year’s climate talks, said he was working with the authorities to address the matter.

“There is a commitment to allow everybody who wishes to engage constructively in this discussion to be part of it,” he said. He added that Poland respected “very much” the principle of giving every stakeholder a say: “It’s important to keep everybody in.”

Among those prevented from attending the talks is Valentyn Nyzkovolosov, a Ukrainian national who traveled by train from Kiev as part of a group of fellow activists. Nyzkovolosov said he had planned to campaign against fossil fuels and support the transition to 100 percent renewable energy during the conference.

When he arrived in the southeastern Polish city of Przemyśl, however, he was denied entry by border authorities on the grounds that he was considered a “threat to national security,” Nyzkovolosov told Mongabay.

“I was shocked,” he said. “None of us had had any problems with the law in the past. We had peaceful intentions.”

Nyzkovolosov said he had all the necessary travel documents, including a passport and an official letter of invitation and accreditation from the U.N. While the incident has left him concerned that he might be barred from entering other E.U. countries in the future, he said he would not let it stop him from campaigning for climate action.

“Hold CO2, not people!” he wrote on his Facebook profile.

Iryna Stavchuk, executive director of the Ukraine-based Centre for Environmental Initiatives (Ecoaction), the fact that some activists were denied entry into Poland to participate in the climate talks undermined very negotiations themselves.

“Participation of representatives of civil society organizations in climate negotiations is crucial, as they act as an important leverage in decision-making,” she said. “All this is to make sure that the achievement of the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius [2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] level becomes a reality. We find the actions of Polish authorities in denying entry of peaceful activists unacceptable.”

Greenpeace Poland director Bohdan Pękacki said the incidents threw Poland’s reputation as the climate summit host into question.

“As host of the most important climate summit since Paris, Poland has the eyes of the world on it, and the question is, what sort of host does Poland want to be?” he said. “Will it embrace the demands of people demanding action and allow their voices to be heard, or silence them through denied entry?”

Svitlana Romanko, the Eastern Europe regional coordinator for 350.org, criticized the United Nations for allowing activists to be barred from attending. She called on the world body to issue clear rules to host countries in the future to prevent such incidents.

Romanko added that 350.org had started an online petition that would be delivered to the U.N. later this week.

“These are peaceful observers and they are not a threat to the national security of Poland,” she said at a press conference at the climate summit. “The biggest threat to the national security of Poland is climate change and coal.”