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CO27 starts next week in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The conference is an opportunity for the Biden administration, led by climate envoy John Kerry, to play a leadership role in putting human rights at the center of global efforts to fight climate change. To this point, human rights has largely been a side issue within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. This is regrettable because, as I’ve written previously, the climate crisis is a human rights crisis. Nearly every human right listed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights will be undermined by climate change. In fact, some already are

The U.S. has several key opportunities in Sharm El-Sheikh to bring these issues together. If it does so, it will help the UNFCCC process take a major step forward in recognizing the centrality of human rights in fighting climate change. If it doesn’t, human rights will likely remain a sideshow–to the detriment of communities and defenders worldwide whose rights have already been undermined.

 In a paper we published this week, my EarthRights colleague Natalia Gomez sets out in detail the specific mechanisms at COP27 in which the U.S. can support a human rights agenda. I will summarize those here and describe some of the politics that seem to be at play around these issues in U.S. climate policy.   

Delivering on Loss and Damage

The largest overarching human rights issue on the table at COP27 is “loss and damage”–compensation demanded by developing countries for the damage to the climate that developed countries have caused. The U.S. has opposed this proposal since it was first introduced. Why? Because it doesn’t want to admit guilt and make itself vulnerable to claims of legal liability.  

When pressed on this issue, Kerry has said outright that the U.S. will not admit guilt and has instead sought to shift the focus to adaptation and preparation programs. The administration’s positioning on this issue is unfortunate and seemingly at odds with its support for climate damage liability lawsuits against fossil fuel companies (such as our case against Exxon Mobil and Suncor Energy in Colorado).  Even if it doesn’t support commitment to loss and damage, the U.S. should, at a minimum, drop its efforts to block the issue from even being discussed, as it has at previous COPs. This is an existential issue for many developing countries. To lead the world on climate policy, the U.S. must demonstrate a willingness to engage more constructively on it.

Strengthening protections for defenders 

There are two additional technical workstreams within the UNFCC where the U.S. can support human rights concerns at COP27. One is the Global Stocktake, a process in which countries “take stock” of progress on the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This process should assess how countries have respected, protected, and promoted human rights, including the rights of Indigenous peoples and environmental and human rights defenders. 

The U.S. is one of the co-facilitators of the Global Stocktake and, as such, is in a position to ensure that the process incorporates a human rights approach. The second is the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), which addresses public participation, access to information, and access to environmental education, among other issues. The U.S. should work to ensure that the ACE action plan adopted in Egypt acknowledges that three of the six elements of ACE are internationally recognized human rights and that the plan recognizes the need to effectively protect environmental and human rights defenders facing restrictions to exercise such rights. 

EarthRights and partner organizations are calling for the establishment within the UNFCCC process of a formal space to strengthen protections for environmental and human rights defenders. These defenders face a global crisis of threats, criminalization, and violence directed at them. Their central role in defending the climate has been widely recognized, including by Kerry, but at present, there is no specific venue within the global climate negotiations process to recognize and help strengthen this role. We believe that the establishment of a task force specifically charged with monitoring countries’ actions to protect defenders could help reduce violence and further legitimize their role. This issue will be discussed at a COP27 side event we are co-convening with civil society partners. 

Egypt’s Shaky Human Rights Record 

The location of the COP itself is also a key human rights issue. The Egyptian government has been widely accused of violating the rights of freedom of speech, expression, and participation and jailing activists who criticize the government. This has raised concerns among civil society about the potential repression of protest activity at the COP venue. Future COPs should take place in countries that demonstrate a willingness to respect these rights. The U.S. should support a host selection process that includes a country’s human rights track record as part of the criteria for selection. 

We will see over the next two weeks which of these actions, if any, the U.S. will support in Sharm El-Sheikh. Unfortunately, at the moment, climate and human rights policies appear to be stove-piped within the administration. For example, U.S. officials have recently expressed support for environmental and land defenders, but the issue does not appear to be on its negotiating agenda for COP27. This perpetuates the idea that climate and human rights are separate issues and potentially in tension with each other. As I argue above, that type of thinking will undermine efforts to fight climate change and protect human rights. The Biden administration should demonstrate in Egypt that it is willing to break down these silos and advance a human rights-based approach to climate policy.