Human Rights?

Climate change poses serious threats to the fundamental rights of billions of people across the globe.  The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and natural disasters – as well as slow-onsets events such as sea-level rise, desertification, and acidification of the oceans — undermines the livelihood, health, food and water of entire populations.  Human rights are therefore a necessary consideration for climate action.  International and national human rights norms require that States take adequate preventive action to mitigate harms and provide effective remedies.

Human rights norms should also inform the design of climate responses. When designed on the basis of human rights, policies aimed at combating climate change can contribute effectively to the full and effective realization of other societal priorities, address inequality, and enhance the right of the public to participate in policymaking.

At the same time, actions promoted as climate solutions have led to the violations of the land rights and land tenure of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in some countries. Adaptation and mitigation measures have the potential to infringe on community rights in the absence of adequate safeguards and remedies.  This is particularly true for climate actions that impact large land areas.  States should ensure that any measure to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, or are intended to address the negative impacts of climate change, is guided by human rights obligations.

The scientific body Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that climate policies are more effective, more resilient, and lead to more equitable outcomes when they are based on human rights, public participation, and the empowerment of all segments of societies. Guaranteeing rights-based climate approaches is key to tackle climate change equitably and effectively.

States Human Rights Obligations

Every country signing the Paris Agreement is already a Party to three or more of the core human rights treaties.  Every country signing the Paris Agreement thus has an international legal obligations to respect, fulfil, and protect the rights of people, including the most vulnerable. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, has been ratified by all UN Member States except for the United States of America. It provides a range of relevant obligations including the rights to life, health (including protection from the dangers of environmental pollution), education (including development of respect for the natural environment), an adequate standard of living, and cultural rights. These existing human rights obligations require States to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, and should inform States’ responses to climate change.

The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. States should abstain from limiting the political rights of every individual with regards to climate-policy making and should refrain from infringing land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in their climate responses.

The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses that might be caused by any actor operating under their jurisdiction. This obligation implies a duty for the State to adequately regulate private actors to prevent climate-related harms.

The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights such as the rights to health, to adequate food, and to water and sanitation. This obligation entails that States must resources necessary for the fulfilment of these rights – including for instance by fiscal and budgeting policies.

The international human rights obligations of States also include obligations owed to people living beyond their national borders. These extraterritorial obligations require States for instance to regulate transnational corporations. It also implies that States must ensure that international regimes (such as trade rules) and the work of international institutions (such as the International Financial Institutions) are compatible with human rights obligations. It also implies that States should contribute through international cooperation to the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

Each of these obligations have different implications for national climate policies.  These obligations must be considered when reviewing the adequacy of NDC planning and implementation processes.  Specifically, does the NDC note and uphold the country’s existing human rights obligations?

Scope of Human Rights Obligations

A core value of the international human rights framework is to protect all segments of society effectively. This requires fighting against discriminations, but also recognizing the importance of heightened protection for peoples and groups whose rights might be particularly at risk. Specific international human rights instruments addressing these heightened obligations of States relate for instance to the rights of women, of Indigenous Peoples and of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

As a result, implementation of a human rights framework should promote integration of key societal priorities through climate action – gender equality, protection and respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, public access to information and public participation, and the imperative of combating hunger.

The Paris Agreement – in its Preamble – reflects the imperative for States to respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, stating that States “should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.”  The Preamble also specifically mentions the human rights of those people whose rights are disproportionately threatened by climate change and climate action — Indigenous Peoples, women, migrants, children, and people with disabilities.  See Paris Agreement Preamble.

This holistic approach should inform the planning and implementation of NDCs, taking into account human rights generally, as well as States’ specific obligations to women, Indigenous Peoples and workers.


The introduction (‘Preamble’) to the Paris Agreement calls on countries to take climate change action in ways that promote “gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”.  Gender reappears in Article 7.5 of the Paris Agreement, where countries are encouraged to take a ‘gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparency approach” to adaptation action.  Financing institutions like the Green Climate Fund have begun to take issues of gender and climate change more seriously.  The GCF’s gender policy – designed to advance gender equality through climate change mitigation and adaption actions while minimizing gender- and climate-related risks – can be found here.

Research has shown that women are disproportionately impacted by extreme weather events, and at the same time women are under-represented in climate communications and leadership. National climate policies should take steps to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on women; as community leaders, women will play a critical role in adapting and responding to climate change. At the same time, countries should take strong measures to ensure meaningful participation of women in climate policy-making, including demonstrating gender awareness in the adoption of NDC programs and approaches.

Colleagues at WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization) recently published a review of how gender equality and women’s empowerment are being addressed in Nationally Determined Contributions.  View here.  There are great resources on climate policy and mobilization throughout WEDO’s website.  This research review of gender and climate change in the United States, also prepared by WEDO, provides evidence of the various ways in which climate change amplifies existing inequities and makes suggestions for addressing them.

Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The planning and implementation of the NDCs must respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to make decisions related to the use of their land and forests. Due account should be taken to the existence of these particular rights and implications. This includes respect for local and traditional knowledge in line with international obligations as provided under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

What to Look For
  • NDCs should reflect adequate ambition that is aligned with the best scientific knowledge with regards to how to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. This ambition should reflect the principle of equity so that countries that contributed most to climate change and with greater capacity to take action take a greater share of the action required to achieve the global temperature goals. This is of particular importance for rich ‘Annex I’ countries in making climate finance part of their overall NDC ambition.
  • The procedural rights of members of the public should be fully guaranteed in the context of the planning and implementation of the NDC. This is done by providing adequate access to relevant information, ensuring effective participation in decision-making processes, and providing access to remedies when rights are infringed.
  • The planning process should consider connections between the NDC and the country’s existing human rights obligations. This will ensure that implementation of the NDC will contribute to the fulfilment of human rights.
  • The NDC should be designed so as to prevent human rights harms resulting from implementation of the NDC. Ideally, the NDC will exclude approaches and policies that could result in human rights harms.  Opportunities to pursue remedies in case of harm should also be included.  At a minimum, the country should use internationally-recognized safeguard systems to manage potential harms.
  • The planning and implementation processes should ensure that the rights of marginalized persons in vulnerable situations are adequately taken into account, and that they are given good opportunities to participate in both planning and implementation processes.
  • Existing domestic human rights institutions should be involved adequately in the planning and in the implementation of the NDC.
  • The NDC should address the full range of the legal obligations of the States, including considering that it has the duty to regulate not only emissions but also any other activities or policies further contributing to climate harms (like allowing continued deforestation).
  • States should seize the opportunity offered by the communication of their NDC to reiterate their commitment to uphold human rights obligations in their climate responses.
Further Resources

Library Resources


  • Rights in a Changing Climate


  • Delivering on Paris


  • Spotlight on Gender

Indigenous Rights

  • Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change