Climate Change as New Frontier of Human Rights: Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies

OHCHR

Good morning.

Thank you for welcoming me. It is a special pleasure to be undertaking the first ever visit by a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the remarkable country of Bangladesh.

I am especially pleased to have this opportunity to meet with young people and students who I hope will be the new defenders of human rights here in Bangladesh and in our world.

Your generation is experiencing dramatic changes. Some of them good, and some of them more challenging than any generation has ever faced.

Growing economic inequalities, climate change, environmental degradation, increased movement of people, a global health pandemic and its socio-economic consequences, and now the far reaching political and economic impacts of the war in Ukraine.

Bangladesh is having to weather these storms, which have combined here with particular intensity and hit the most marginalised and excluded the hardest. These include notably women, informal workers, street vendors, minorities, persons with disabilities, children, and migrants.

And yet, amidst all these challenges, we are also seeing beacons of hope across the globe, in particular the tremendous power of youth. I continue to be inspired by the movements and actions of young people challenging entrenched discrimination, the climate emergency, continuing injustice, and deepening inequalities. Wherever I go, I greatly value my exchanges with students and young people. It is you, after all, who have the greatest interest in strong and fair societies, and a healthy planet sustaining our shared lives.

Young people are – quite rightly – influencing debates of national and international importance and prompting social change, including through their command of new digital technologies and insights into how a better future should look, both here and around the world. They are demanding a seat at the table and holding governments and businesses to account.

An open civic space is a crucial ingredient for youth to be able to play that driving role – a space where they can voice their opinions, be heard, and demand and insist on real change.

In his Call to Action for Human Rights and in Our Common Agenda, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres set out how young people need space to participate in the decisions that will shape their future – which is fundamental for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Bangladesh has made important progress in meeting the SDGs on poverty and education. I commend Bangladesh on its ambitious vision for economic development and with a view to graduating from so-called “Least Developed Country” status in 2026.

At the same time, stronger efforts are needed to meet SDGs 5 on gender equality and SDG 10 on reducing inequality. This includes working towards eliminating child marriage, tackling gender-based violence, ensuring the right of every child to education, and enacting both short- and long-term special measures to reduce income inequality, among other steps.

In addition, Bangladesh’s sustainable development efforts should occur in line with SDG 16 by promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions. This includes strengthening the national human rights commission, the elections commission, the judiciary, expanding civic space for public debate (both on and offline) and ensuring civil society participation in the design and implementation of economic and social development plans.

Fast-tracking equality means ensuring we have an economy that works for everyone, including the hardest hit: the excluded and discriminated, and those with no voice or little bargaining power. It means ensuring access to essential levels of health care, social protection and education for all.

Development is only sustainable if we integrate human rights, including the protection and enjoyment of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, into development policies and plans, along with the participation of those affected.

Dear friends and colleagues,

The deepening impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are perhaps the greatest risk to human rights we face in the world today. And we don’t only speak about climate change at the UN – we speak about the triple planetary crisis, where climate change is one element, pollution is the second, and the third one is the loss of biodiversity. And many of the pandemics we are seeing are linked to zoonosis, which means diseases are being transmitted from animals to human beings and wild animals have viruses which we are not used to. So we need to care about biodiversity as well. The dangers to life, health and livelihoods of people everywhere are both urgent and real, and we just heard the testimony from your colleague here today on this.

An estimated one in six premature deaths are caused by pollution. Climate change directly contributes to harmful effects impacting human rights across the globe, such as droughts, floods, sea-level rises, heatwaves, extreme weather events. In Europe, the “canicule” heat wave is killing people, particularly older people. Biodiversity loss threatens the collapse of entire ecosystems. The alarm bell rang a long time ago.

The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, mentioned by the other speakers, make it clear that without strong and ambitious action we are heading towards catastrophe.

Yet the tools are in our hands to steer towards a better future. We know what we have to do. The IPCC reports emphasize that rights-based approaches, participation and inclusion can reduce those structural vulnerabilities to climate change – such as exposure to floods and cyclones, desertification, drought and riverbank erosion. Such approaches contribute to development that is more resilient to climate change.

Bangladesh is very much at the frontline of this issue, both in terms of the effects of climate change on the country, but also due to its vital role as an actor for change.

With a population largely dependent on the land and on natural resources for livelihoods, and indeed survival, Bangladesh is one of the countries that is most affected by environmental damage and climate change. Up to two thirds of Bangladeshis are involved in farming activities in some way, with women accounting for half of those working in the agricultural sector.

Three quarters of the population in the country reside in environmentally vulnerable rural areas, with many either living in poverty or not owning land. Growing migration to already densely populated urban areas in low-lying coastal zones is leading to the expansion of informal settlement areas in urban areas and also expansion of the informal economy.

The World Bank estimates that Bangladesh may have almost 20 million internal climate migrants by 2050 – corresponding to roughly 12 % of the entire population of Bangladesh or the entire population of my own home country, Chile. Specifically, with a projected 50 cm rise in sea level, as mentioned before, Bangladesh may lose approximately 11% of its land by then, and that would mean up to 18 million people may have to migrate because of sea-level rise alone.

In communities like Khulna, increased salinity, siltation, flooding, and worsening cyclones have devastated the agriculture sector, affected living and working conditions and are pushing many workers into other, precarious sectors.

This is why it was said earlier this is not an issue of the future. Is something happening today? And I think this is really crucial to the discussions worldwide because many people from who were not suffering directly, they say it is for future generations. But this is for today. So if rising sea levels are pushing fishermen into the countryside to make an income in agriculture, they’re not used to it. They don’t have the capacity or the tools. This produces severe consequences, including leaving their home.

Climate change impacts access to food more broadly. Rising temperatures and heat stress are already affecting rice production in parts of Bangladesh.

In some instances, economic growth and development – including in already fragile contexts – have come at the cost of environmental protection and traditional livelihoods. For instance, rapid deforestation to facilitate tourism development and economic growth, such as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, increasingly undermines not only the fragile ecosystems that populations depend on to survive, but also the rights of indigenous populations in terms of access to their land and right to preserve, practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs.

Infrastructure development that is really important can also have adverse environmental impacts, so it is vital that consultation with communities and thorough and transparent environmental and human rights impact assessments are part of the planning and financing process.

Climate change also disproportionately impacts those who are already in vulnerable situations, such as women, children and youth, minorities, persons with disabilities, but also landless farmers in rural areas, where gradual environmental degradation is already affecting adaptive capacity.

Protecting the environment goes hand-in-hand with protecting the rights of those who defend it. Many environmental human rights defenders themselves belong to indigenous and/ or tribal peoples or are members affected local communities, or they represent them. Their voices must be heard – and protected.

Bangladesh has rightly been commended for some of its adaptation and mitigation strategies. In 2018, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights welcomed the establishment of the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust and the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund, while recommending that strategies and action plans on climate change and disaster response and risk reduction be formulated and implemented on the basis of human rights and with the meaningful participation of affected communities and civil society. These are models that commend themselves around the world.

With thanks to the leadership and advocacy of Bangladesh, the General Assembly of the United Nations – where all Member States are represented and have a voice – just weeks ago recognized that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right. This is a milestone development. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, indeed, our health, wellbeing and survival all depend on a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment – this we instinctively know to be true.

This emphasis on rights-based environmental action is complemented by action in the Human Rights Council addressing links between human rights and climate change in its recent resolution 50/9, as well as the adoption of a special procedures mandate on human rights and climate change.

I am pleased that the first country visit to be undertaken by the newly appointed Special Rapporteur will be to Bangladesh next month.

It is crucial that these commitments at the global level lead to adoption of stronger legal and policy frameworks at the national level, as well as their implementation. Over 150 countries already recognize the right to a healthy environment within their legal systems, in some form or another.

International human rights law provides a valuable framework to guide national policies and ensure remedies and accountability of state and non-state actors in protecting the environment and protecting against climate change. National courts also play a key role in domestic implementation. For instance, the landmark decision of the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 2019 to grant legal identity to the Turag River and all other rivers in the country, shows the potential for public interest litigation and action by the courts to protect the environment. This decision goes beyond just recognising rivers as legal entities, but provides detailed guidance to several Government agencies to take steps to protect rivers, which are so central to the national life and identity of the country. So I think it is very important for the legislative and executive branches of the Government to move promptly to fully implementing the Court’s directives.

Bangladesh courts have also for over 30 years given repeated protective orders for climate refugees, and an inclusive housing policy has been developed. While there have been laudable schemes in some municipalities, it is important this be scaled up on a national basis, particularly in the cities.

Excellencies,

Dear friends and colleagues,

Now is the time for action. We have spoken a lot, and we must walk the talk. The international community must heed the voice of specially affected countries like Bangladesh and act with single-minded purpose and solidarity to deploy every possible resource to make the human right to a healthy environment a reality for all.

We know what we need to do, the challenge is moving our political leaders at international level to the point where they realise that the costs of inaction are far higher than those of doing the right thing.

When I was in office as President of Chile, the majority of countries calculated the costs needed to take measures to protect or to mitigate or to adapt to climate change. And it’s true that in the near term and short term, that investment is high. But what is rarely calculated is the mid- or long-term cost if you don’t do what you need to do – it’s much higher in all senses – in the economy, in the health of the people, in the survival of the country and so on.

So I hope that in the next steps and at the international level, including at the end of the year in the discussion of the post-2020 biodiversity framework, that the international community will take steps to walk the talk and not to just discuss in closed rooms about this. So as I said, we know what we need to do. We need political will to move forward on this.

Amplifying the voices of rights holders, of young people, working with States, academia and civil society and encouraging constructive engagement, is key to reaching that goal, and my Office is committed to playing its part in fostering that.

Your own contributions are crucial: we need your intelligence, your research, your creativity and determination to find solutions grounded in the basic understanding that all of us are equally deserving of dignity, respect and justice.

Not just to tackle the challenges we are already facing, but – at this critical time in history – to draw out a new way of working. Something we learned from COVID 19 was that we shouldn’t have the perspective of going back to normality because that normality brought us where we are. That normality with the economic system that was so unequal. It was not COVID 19 that was responsible for the inequalities. It just laid bare the lack of preparation in the world at this point. I’m talking not only about developing countries which usually have less capacity to respond, but I am also talking about some of the most developed countries which were not prepared for something like this. They thought that investing in health was a cost not an investment. So, their public system was not prepared for this. So that’s why in the UN we say we don’t want that normality. We want a new normality. It is about building forward better, not building back.

So, we need to draw a new way of living, working and reaching our individual, collective potential in peace with each other and with our planet.

Thank you very much for joining and I look forward to our discussion.

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