On 1 April 2022 the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council appointed Ian Fry as the world’s first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. The mandate for a new special rapporteur on climate change was established by the Council in its 48th session (on 8 October 2021) where it also adopted a landmark resolution recognising the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment (A/HRC/RES/48/13). Fry, who will be holding this position for three years, is an expert in international environmental law and policy with extensive experience in climate negotiations as a representative of Tuvalu.
This appointment marks the success of an over a decade-long campaign for the Council to establish a thematic mandate for a new special rapporteur on human rights and climate change. This campaign was widely supported by civil society organizations as well as several developing countries. The role that UN Special Rapporteurs (UNSR) can play in mainstreaming human rights in environmental policy and decision-making at sub-national, national and international levels cannot be underestimated. With respect to climate change specifically, the UNSR on human rights and the environment, the UNSR on extreme poverty and human rights, the UNSR on human rights of migrants, the UNSR on the rights of indigenous peoples, and the UNSR on the rights of internally displaced persons have identified the link between the adverse short-term and long-term effects of climate change on the enjoyment of different human rights, and indicated that this results in special obligations towards certain protected groups. In the climate litigation space, the UNSR on human rights and the environment has filed several amicus interventions, including in the Portuguese Youth case pending before European Court of Human Rights (along with the UNSR on toxics and human rights), the Torres Strait Islanders case pending before the UN Human Rights Committee, the Sacchi case before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as domestic climate cases in Ireland, Norway and Brazil.
It is also worth recalling that in October 2014, 27 UNSRs and independent experts intervened during the negotiations for the Paris Agreement by way of an open letter to the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Here, they urged that the new treaty must recognise that climate change adversely affects human rights, that the obligation to adopt climate change mitigation measures to keep the global average temperature from rising above a level that is safe (2° C, if not lower) has a basis in human rights law, and that states must respect human rights in the formulation and implementation of climate policy. Unfortunately, the only reference to human rights in the Paris Agreement appears in the preamble, which notes that Parties must respect their respective human rights obligations when taking action to address climate change (para. 11). The negotiations under the umbrella of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have not sufficiently addressed the human rights implications of climate change or framed climate mitigation as a human rights obligation. With this background, the work of the special rapporteur on climate change is likely to have even more salience.
Outside of the standard (albeit important) functions performed by holders of thematic mandates, the new rapporteur’s ability to hold states accountable for the protection of human rights is especially crucial in relation to climate action. In this regard, it is worth noting that the mandate of the special rapporteur on climate change includes identifying challenges and making recommendations with respect to “States’ efforts to promote and protect human rights while addressing the adverse effects of climate change…including in the context of the design and implementation of mitigation and adaptation policies, practices, investments and other projects” (A/HRC/RES/48/14, para. 2(b)). This can be done by highlighting good practices of states with reference not just to domestic mitigation and adaptation measures, but also states’ ‘nationally determined contributions’ under the Paris Agreement and contributions towards international support and capacity building. This is a challenging task that needs to be executed carefully in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which is central to international climate change law and equity in climate action. At the same time, the urgency of the existential threat that is climate change lends particular importance to the new office of the special rapporteur.
Written by Pranav Ganesan (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)