Climate change and human rights

28 August 2020

EJA recently made two joint submissions related to Australia’s Third Universal Periodic Review under the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling on Australia to improve its approaches to environmental and climate justice, the protection of cultural heritage and respect for free expression and assembly.

Along with our colleagues at the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), we submitted comments on the draft National Report prepared by the Australian Government. Our submission noted that it is surprising that the critical human rights issues related to climate change and the protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander cultural heritage are not addressed in the National Report. We urged the Government to raise these issues in the National Report, and to introduce a national Human Rights Act and charter of human rights to address them.

We also made a joint submission directly to the UN Human Rights Council in collaboration with EDO and Earthjustice, a US-based environmental justice organisation. Our submission directs the Human Rights Council’s attention to the Government failures to meet its international human rights obligations in relation to climate change, and to freedom of speech and assembly.

Australia’s failures to uphold human rights

Climate change is internationally recognised as impacting human rights, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development. The federal government has acknowledged that climate change is a threat and that the lives of all Australians, as well as future generations, will be seriously affected. However, the draft National Report (Australia’s submission to the UN on how it is fulfilling its obligations) makes no mention of climate change, or of Australia’s continued inaction in the face of this threat. EJA’s joint submission points to Australia’s policy of encouraging continued fossil fuel extraction, burning and exportation, and its failure to commit to a fair share of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as key human rights violations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change, and are also exposed to dispossession and the destruction of cultural heritage by mining companies. The government is required to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultural heritage under international human rights law. The destruction of 46,000-year-old heritage sites of significant cultural heritage significance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is only the most recent instance of the government’s failure to adequately protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage.

The federal government, as well as state and territory governments, have also made concerted efforts to stifle public dissent and debate on climate policy including by restricting the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly, opinion, and expression with new police powers and offences directed at environmental and climate change protestors in several states and serritories. The government has also threatened the deductible-gift recipient (DGR) status of non-governmental organisations undertaking environmental and climate change advocacy, limiting these organisations’ ability to speak up about environmental injustices and failures in climate policy.

A national charter of human rights

EJA and EDO’s joint submission urges the government to introduce a Human Rights Act and national charter of human rights, to ensure that human rights are properly protected by law.

At the moment, human rights are protected in a piecemeal and unsatisfactory way in Australian law. An enforceable national charter of human rights would enshrine our human rights in law, including cultural rights such as the right to cultural heritage, and social and political rights such as the rights to free opinion, expression and assembly. Environmental and climate justice that respects the human rights of all Australians, and ensures that the government is held to account for failures to protect Australians’ human rights, depends on a strong and enforceable legal framework.

About the Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process in international human rights law, in which United Nations (UN) Member States report the actions they have taken to fulfil their human rights obligations and improve their human rights situations. The National Report is reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council, which makes recommendations for improvement and monitors implementation of the recommendations.

However, Australia’s draft National Report did not address three key areas of overlap between human rights and environmental justice: the human rights impact of climate change, the destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural heritage, and the suppression of rights to peaceful assembly, opinion and expression in relation to climate policy. Neglecting these issues in the National Report reflects the Government’s ongoing attempts to minimise scrutiny of its climate policy failures and its failures to protect the cultural heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

You can read the joint submission by EJA and EDO here

You can read the joint submission by EJA, EDO and Earthjustice here

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