Rights & Climate Action

Promoting human rights in climate action does not require any new recognition of human rights by States.  The commitments have already been made.  Instead, guaranteeing human rights-based climate action is about ensuring policy coherence between climate and human rights objectives, because States’ obligations are already well defined in international, regional and national human rights frameworks. The Paris Agreement recognizes this explicitly as it recalls that “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights”.

While human rights can contribute to offer remedies to the victims of harm, integrating human rights throughout climate action should actually reduce conflicts and litigation by promoting coherent policies and mitigating potential harms that might result from the lack of adequate climate action.

Paris Agreement Preamble

States’ human rights obligations should inform the design and implementation of climate action. Some of the most relevant international legal frameworks are laid out below. Over the past ten years, many human rights institutions have addressed the linkages between climate change and human rights obligations, providing guidance for States, about how they must uphold their existing commitments. These legal instruments and authoritative statements should be used as key guidance to translate effectively the vision contained in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement into the planning of national climate action. Here is the text from the Agreement:

Emphasizing the intrinsic relationship that climate change actions, responses and impacts have with equitable access to sustainable development and eradication of poverty,
Recognizing the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change,

Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities,

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity,

Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change,

Affirming the importance of education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and cooperation at all levels on the matters addressed in this Agreement,

Key Elements of Rights Approaches

Human rights norms provide a broad range of obligations upon States in the context of climate change and climate action. These obligations relate to the civil and political rights of the public in relation to climate-related policy making, and to the protection and fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights in the face of climate change – including the rights to life, safe drinking water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture, work and development. Additionally, States must ensure that their climate responses are coherent with their human rights obligations and in particular prevent and remedy any human rights harms resulting from inadequate climate projects and policies.

Ambition and Equity

A healthy and sustainable environment is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the majority of other human rights. In this context, States have the duty to prevent damage to the climate systems to protect people against harms that would result from further temperature increases. International human rights bodies and national courts have recognized that States must, on the basis of their human rights obligations, design and implement policies seeking to limit temperature increases, in line with the best scientific knowledge as assembled by the IPCC.

The right to development and the duty to cooperate towards the universal realization of economic, social and cultural rights also imply that States must guarantee that their NDCs fulfil an equitable share of climate action.  States shouldn’t shift the burden of climate action onto other States.

Rights of Indigenous Peoples

States have recognized the inherent individual and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and ILO Convention No.169 lay out a universal framework of minimum standards for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. These rights include acknowledgment of collective rights over land and natural resources; free prior and informed consent over projects that may affect them or their territories; and inalienable cultural rights.

While Indigenous Peoples are often on the frontlines of climate impacts, many climate policies oblivious of human rights norms have caused violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Harmful policies and projects have included forced evictions associated with reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD+), and ‘land grabs’ resulting from palm oil plantations used to produce biofuels. To uphold such obligations, States must assess the potential adverse impacts of their overall climate policies, as well as ensure that effective safeguards and remedies are established in relation to individual projects.

Rights of Peasants

In 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP). The UNDROP builds on other international treaties through which States have recognized human rights obligations relevant to peasants and rural communities. UNDROP explicitly formulates the right to land as an independent right.  UNDROP also sets standards for redressing different forms of discrimination, and other rights violations affecting peasants and rural peoples.

Given the importance of land-based climate mitigation and adaptation policies, as because of the threat that specific climate action poses to peasants and rural communities, the full and effective implementation of the standards set in the UNDROP is essential for equitable and effective climate action.

Gender Equality and Women Empowerment

Gender-based discrimination and inequalities result in women’s greater vulnerability to climate change impacts.  Discrimination often restricts women’s access to climate-related decision making, which leads to gender-skewed policies and planning. Under human rights law, States must prevent and prohibit any form of discrimination against women, promote the substantive equality between men and women.

In the context of climate action, these obligations require States to mainstream gender equality throughout their climate action, including by collecting gender-disaggregated data on climate impacts and the results of climate policies, ensuring the full and effective participation of women in decision-making, and integrating gender-differentiated needs and priorities in their climate policies.

Access to Information, Public Participation and Acceess to Remedies

The human right to participate in public affairs provided by international human rights frameworks is further elaborated in matters of environmental policy making. In this context, States must protect three interrelated procedural rights for the members of the public: the right to public access to information, the right to full and effective participation and the right to access to remedies (please see the section “Public Participation?’  for further information).

Regulating Private Actors

Human rights norms require States to take effective action to protect human rights from harm by businesses by implementing due-diligence standards and providing effective remedies from harm.  These obligations are particularly relevant where States rely on partnerships with private actors for the implementation of climate action, or where they provide climate-related incentives to new schemes that involve private businesses, such as market-based approaches to mitigation.

Private actors also have a responsibility to respect human rights. This includes the responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through environmental harm, to address such impacts when they occur, and to prevent adverse human rights impacts directly linked to the business’ operations, products or services. This duty of ‘due diligence’ extends beyond companies directly contributing to climate change-related harms (such as fossil fuels companies and companies contributing to deforestation), but also (for example) to banks that are providing financial support to such activities.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set minimum standards with regard to the business and human rights around three interrelated pillars: States’ duty to protect human rights; corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and the public’s right to access to remedy if these rights are not respected.

Just Transition and the Rights of Workers

International law protects the fundamental rights of workers. These labour rights include the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, the abolition of child labour and the elimination of employment discrimination. As the transition to a zero-carbon development will reshape the economy, States must guarantee a just transition through the effective respect and protection of these rights.

Food Security and Poverty Eradication

The Paris Agreement stresses the importance of the eradication of poverty.  It acknowledges the fundamental priority for States of safeguarding food security. The right to adequate food and the right to livelihood are two of the key rights protected by international law, and aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, but currently threatened by climate change. States should ensure that climate policies contribute to fulfilling these rights and must take action to ensure that climate action does not undermine these rights.

Designing an Adequate Role for Relevant National Institutions

To integrate human rights in climate action, States should review the compatibility and coherence of climate policies with their human rights obligations.  States should adopt a deliberate process for reviewing their implementation of human rights commitments, as part of NDC development.

To make this review happen in an efficient way, climate policymakers should facilitate the participation of domestic governmental and non-governmental groups working on human rights into NDC processes. Most States have a legal mandate to protect and promote human rights at the national level, and most have established formal government structures to promote gender equality and the rights of women. Given their existing public mandate and expertise, these domestic institutions are ideally placed to work with other ministries in order to improve the design of climate responses.

What to Ask For
Ambition and Equity
  • Is the level of domestic mitigation ambition reflected in the NDC in line with international agreements and the best available scientific knowledge?
  • Does the NDC truly reflect the principle of equity, both in terms of domestic mitigation ambition, but also with reference to international cooperation and support? (international investors should also uphold human rights).
Human Rights
  • Will national institutions charged with advancing human rights and gender equality play a role in processes related to the planning and implementation of the NDC?
  • Does the NDC reiterate the importance of respecting human rights and social safeguards in the context of any cooperative approaches (e.g. mechanisms under article 6, including REDD+)?
  • Have human rights impact assessments been conducted in relation to sector policies included in the NDC? This can include agriculture.
  • Does the NDC provide information on how national climate action is designed to contribute to sustainable development and the eradication of poverty?
  • Does the NDC acknowledge the importance of complying with the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Businesses?
  • Does the NDC address the responsibilities of businesses for climate-induced harms, including in relation to their commercial and financial relationships with other actors?
Respect and Promotion of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Does the NDC affirm a commitment to the respect for and integration of traditional knowledge in the preparation and implementation of domestic climate action?
  • Does the NDC guarantee respect for the principle of the free prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples?
  • Do the NDC planning and implementation contribute to fulfilling the obligations provided under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
 Rights of Peasants, Rural Communities, and Other People working in Rural Areas
  • Does the NDC address the importance of channeling funding and capacity-building support for tenure reforms, safeguards implementation, and ensuring effective monitoring of community-based natural resource management approaches?
  • Does the NDC and its implementation respect the right to land of Indigenous Peoples, peasants, rural communities, and other people working in rural areas? Does that respect include land tenure in both individual and/or collective forms?
Gender Equality  
  • Has the planning of the NDC built upon the full and effective participation of women?
  • Does the NDC reflect a commitment to mainstream women’s rights and gender equality across all policy areas covered by the NDC?
  • Does the NDC provide sufficient information with regard to measures seeking to promote gender equality such as gender-responsive climate action, gender budgeting, and evidence-based decision-making through effective monitoring and sex-disaggregated data and indicators?
Workers’ Rights
  • Does the NDC refer to and include plans for the creation of decent work and quality jobs as well as for a just transition of the workforce?
  • Are there mechanisms to ensure that trade unions and workers are involved in participatory processes related to the implementation of the NDC? Is the importance of social dialogue and core labour rights recognized in the NDC or in related frameworks?
Good Practice Examples

The vast majority of NDCs submitted so far have failed to reflect the importance of human rights in climate action. Only a minority of NDCs have mentioned explicitly the need for human rights norms to guide climate action. A larger number of NDCs have reflected some of the key human rights-related dimensions of climate action, such as the need to address the greater impacts of climate change on women or the importance of addressing poverty while taking climate action. But most of these references are too vague to indicate whether they truly reflect human rights obligations, and the aspirations of the Party to fulfil those obligations.

Further Resources

WEDO: Research Paper: Gender and Climate Change – Analysis of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)


Gender and NDCs: Country Progress and Key Findings


Gender Analysis and NDCs: Short Guidance For Government Stakeholders

UN Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Report on Human Rights and Climate Change (2016)

UN Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Framework principles on human rights and the environment (2018)

UN Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Report on Human Rights and a safe climate (2019)

Library Resources

Key Messages

  • On Human Rights and Climate
  • On the Rights on Indigenous Peoples
  • On Achieving Gender Equality (SDGs)
  • On Access to Information