Making Human Rights Central to Climate Change Strategies
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Making Human Rights Central to Climate Change Strategies

Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocates for the importance of making human rights an essential part of the global response to climate change. As part of Credit Suisse's efforts to engage in a dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders to gain insight that can help us develop sustainable business practices, we led a conversation with Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch's Business and Human Rights Division, about the activities, successes and challenges of this work.

Credit Suisse: In October 2015, HRW released a report on human rights and climate change, illustrated by the situation of people in Kenya's Lake Turkana region. What are the biggest climate change impacts on the most affected communities?

Arvind Ganesan: Climate change, in combination with existing political, environmental and economic development challenges in Turkana, has had an impact on the Turkana people's ability to access food, water, health and security. Indigenous people living in Turkana told Human Rights Watch that they faced increased difficulty in accessing water, and that many water sources had dried out, making every day a struggle for survival. Parents said that their children become sick because they are unable to provide them with sufficient food and safe water for drinking and hygiene.

In your report you mention that women, children, elderly people and minorities suffer disproportionately from climate change. How can this be explained? 

Climate change disproportionately affects already vulnerable people, especially in countries with limited resources and fragile ecosystems. For example, women constitute the majority of the world's poor, and so are more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change. And around the world, women and girls are the most likely to be responsible for fetching water for their families. Indigenous peoples in Turkana have long had difficulty accessing clean water due to environmental and other challenges. With rising temperatures and many wells that have dried up women and girls now have to walk even longer distances. 

Based on your experience working in Kenya's Lake Turkana region, what advice do you give to governments to protect people against climate change impacts? What are the biggest challenges these governments face with this task?

The Turkana county and Kenyan national governments have been struggling to address the human rights consequences of climate change and other environmental developments for the most marginalized populations. Addressing climate change and supporting communities' efforts to adapt to these impacts should be urgent local, national, and international priorities. In particular, governments should develop climate change policies that protect the rights of all populations, including the most marginalized. In fact, the struggles of the Turkana people are an important reminder for governments around the world that human rights should be a central element of their response to climate change.

A major goal of HRW is to address the problem of toxic pollution from industrialization that causes vulnerable populations to suffer a range of abuses, including toxic pollution, denied access to water, and deadly diseases such as child lead poisoning. How do you bring local and global attention to this issue? 

Pollution is estimated to have caused the premature death of over 12 million people in 2012, nearly all in developing countries. At Human Rights Watch we investigate links between environmental degradation and some of the world's most pressing health issues —such as mercury, lead and arsenic poisoning— exposing the devastating health consequences of inadequate or nonexistent government regulation. A unifying theme throughout our work on these toxic threats is how the absence of laws or policies addressing environmental harms disproportionately affect poor and marginalized communities who are often unable to access information on toxic environmental threats and have limited opportunity to participate meaningfully in decision-making and public debate on environmental issues. 

In the last couple of years, Human Rights Watch has stressed the importance of defending human rights in the face of growing environment-related abuses in Africa and other regions. Why was it so important for HRW to include human rights in the global climate change agreement? 

The ultimate goal of the Paris Agreement is not to save the glaciers, but to protect the most vulnerable people who are and will be most affected by the effects of climate change. A global response to climate change is urgently needed because continued warming will cause changes to the environment that threaten many people's health and result in loss of homes, lives, and livelihoods for those most marginalized. In our advocacy leading up to the global climate change summit in December 2015, we engaged with a broad coalition of activists and helped to ensure that the agreement— as the first climate change agreement in history— included a recognition that respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights is critical to a successful response to climate change.

HRW's work on human rights and climate change was very successful in 2015, and with the incorporation of human rights into a global climate change agreement a decisive milestone was reached. Where do you see the biggest challenges in protecting the rights of poor and marginalized communities in the future?

As governments implement the agreement, and as funds are distributed to help countries adapt to climate change and put mitigation measures in place, efforts need to be made to ensure that marginalized populations participate in planning, that rights are respected, and that there is transparency and accountability in how funding is used. Of course, calling on governments to respect rights does not ensure that they will. But environmental activists, human rights organizations, women's rights advocates, indigenous peoples, and environmental groups will work to hold governments to these commitments.