A Human Rights Based Approach to Climate Change in Latin America

By: Camila Bustos and María José Veramendi*


A few days before the beginning of the climate negotiations in Paris, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted an official document to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on “Understanding human rights and climate change”. For many, the link between these two remains unclear. Aren’t there already other international agreements that discuss this issue in depth? What is the point of including human rights language in a climate change agreement?

The link between human rights and climate change has been recognized long ago by the UN Human Rights Council, which has passed several resolutions to bring attention to this issue.

Several countries are already feeling the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, droughts, extreme weather events and floods among other disasters are becoming increasingly common. Latin America and the Caribbean is one the most vulnerable regions to climate change. People and communities across the region are suffering from devastating impacts such as the melting of glaciers in the Andes, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. Many face the risk of losing their traditional livelihoods and being displaced.

The impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights in Latin America have been thoroughly documented by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense in its 2011 report on Climate Change and Human Rights. One of the most shocking impacts includes the drastic reduction to water in the region. By the year 2025, melting glaciers, the degradation of wetlands, intense droughts and erratic meteorological patterns will limit access to water to more than 50 million people in the tropical Andean region.  Other anticipated effects include flooding and changing rain patterns. In Colombia, flooding affected more than 2.2 million people and cost $300 million USD in 2010 alone.

A family home in Cordoba, Colombia floods with heavy rains in the area. Photo by: World Bank Photo Collection. 

A family home in Cordoba, Colombia floods with heavy rains in the area. Photo by: World Bank Photo Collection. 

In the transition to a low-carbon and resilient economy, countries are already working to design and implement projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect citizens from climate change impacts. A reference to human rights in the operational section of the agreement can ensure that human rights are taken into account in the process of developing and implementing climate policies. This is why:

  1. It will raise the ambition and strengthen the agreement promoting an implementation that will ensure that parties comply with their already existing human rights obligations.
  2. It will support the goals of the agreement by preventing discrimination, exclusion and inequality. The affected communities have to have a say in the policies and projects designed to help them.
  3. It will not create additional obligations, but ensure that there is coherence in the international regime. Parties are already obliged to comply with other human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As the world turns its attention to Paris in the next two weeks, we cannot forget to humanize climate change and remember that those who have contributed to the least to the problem are and will continue to be the most affected. If we want to ensure a livable planet for the future generations the new climate agreement must include the respect, protection, protection and fulfillment of human rights.

We call on all State Parties and specially those of our Latin American region to support theinclusion of human rights protections in the agreement.


* Maria Camila Bustos is a lead researcher at sustainability strategy group Nivela and María José Veramendi is Senior Attorney at the Human Rights and the Environment Program at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA).