The burdens of climate change should be shared equally - between the rich and poor, women and men, and young and old. Climate justice means focusing on equitably sharing burdens.
Yet, in reality the impacts are felt most acutely by those who have contributed least to the problem. In addition to recognizing that different groups are affected in different ways by the climate crisis, more attention should be paid to the fact that climate impacts can exacerbate already inequitable social conditions. For example, extreme heat affects the elderly, those with disabilities, or people suffering from chronic illness more severely, while people already struggling with food insecurity are impacted inordinately by diminished food supplies due to drought and flooding, and communities of color are often subjected to relatively poor air quality, urban heat islands, and other problems that become more acute as the planet warms.
Efforts to achieve climate justice are gaining greater acceptance and prominence; the global Fridays For Future youth strikes have injected new energy into the movement, and illustrated the need to embrace the next generation as facilitators and creators of fresh opportunity - and not merely as passive beneficiaries of climate action.
Climate justice means being clearly focused on equitably sharing the burdens of climate change. There is also a need to focus on the practical means to achieve the new, green economy. Just as the effects of climate change often have different social, economic, and public-health implications for marginalized and vulnerable groups, the actions undertaken to fight climate change can adversely impact certain people if not properly conceived and pursued.
There is a growing awareness of the need for a “just transition” that not only creates jobs to those who lose theirs to climate progress, but also recognizes that efforts to achieve a low-carbon economy must be implemented in ways that respect the rights of the workers and communities most impacted by changing industries, economies, technologies, and societies. Underpinning this concept is the core human rights principle of participation - to involve those affected by a potential action in the decision-making process.
Businesses Being Accountable
In 2005 the International Relations scholar and former UN Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Planning John Ruggie was appointed by the UN Secretary General to “clarify” this role - which had for decades been the subject of divisive debate. He spent the next six years consulting governments, businesses, and affected communities around the world, and drafted the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” (UNGPs), which were unanimously endorsed in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council.
The UNGPs lay out three interconnected pillars: states must actively protect against human rights abuses involving businesses and take steps to prevent, investigate, punish, and redress them; businesses of all sizes, sectors, location, ownership, and structure must actively respect human rights, avoid causing or contributing to adverse impacts through their activities, and prevent or mitigate impacts linked to them via business relationships; and both states and businesses must be accountable for any harm they are involved in, meaning states must ensure access to effective remedies through judicial, administrative, legislative, or other means, and businesses should create and use grievance mechanisms to ensure issues are addressed early and directly.
Since they were endorsed the UN Guiding Principles have been widely embraced, and major international and domestic entities have aligned their own standards accordingly.
Despite this progress, however, the UNGPs are only a tool. Companies continue to commit human rights abuses, and thousands of businesses large and small remain either ignorant or in denial of their related responsibilities.
Relatively few legal cases have resulted in a meaningful remedy for those harmed by corporate misdeeds or inaction, and systemic risks continue to be unaddressed. This has prompted a push at the UN for a new international legal instrument to mandate the regulation of corporate conduct as it relates to human rights. Processes to draft treaties at the UN usually consume a considerable amount of time, with no clear end in sight, and the experience with this treaty has been no different. In the meantime, an increasing number of national and regional proposals for mandatory human rights due diligence have gained momentum, as have initiatives by investors to use their leverage with corporations.
Businesses have a significant role to play in respecting and promoting human rights. It has been roughly a decade since the role of the businesses in upholding human rights was ‘clarified’. Hundreds of companies have now established human rights policies, alongside systems designed for their implementation. And, significant judicial decisions regarding related corporate conduct have drawn international attention.
A Living Wage for All
Achieving Diversity and Inclusion
The principle of a living wage is not new. It may be relatively easy to define but it is far more difficult to achieve. The principle has been reinforced in many of the other labor and human rights standards that have emerged since then. The level at which the living wage is set is context-driven, varying between nations and within them. It was reflected in the International Labor Organization’s constitution established in 1919, and in the right of workers to “just and favorable remuneration” ensuring “an existence worthy of human dignity” included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is no single definition, though it is generally understood to mean a level that provides households with a minimum acceptable standard of living, including essentials such as water, food, housing, education, healthcare, clothing, and transportation.
In an environment where investors are increasingly scrutinizing corporate ESG (environmental, social and governance) commitments and performance, however, companies will have to explain why poverty wages in global supply chains are permissible. Efforts like the Action, Collaboration, Transformation initiative (ACT), which brings together international brands, retailers, manufacturers, and unions to address wages in textile and garment supply chains, tend to focus on the role of collective bargaining
A growing number of companies are committing to paying a living wage, but relatively few have extended this to their global supply chains. According to the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, just 10% of the world’s largest companies, in sectors like agriculture, mining, apparel, and information and communication technology, have applied living wage commitments to either their own operations or their supply chains (the percentage is even lower in the automotive sector).
Making a living wage a reality for everyone, however, has proved far more difficult than defining it. For many businesses and governments in developing economies, low wages are viewed as a competitive advantage. But at a time when trust in governments is at a low, and economic inequality has widened in much of the world, this approach should be reconsidered.
A living wage is not a privilege; it is enabled by workers, for workers, to claim their rights. In the near future, more governments, investors, and companies will likely have to respond to demands from unions and civil society groups for a living wage.
The many different factors that can make up a person’s identity - race, gender, age, physical ability, or cultural background, for example - shape their experiences throughout life. Identity is multifaceted, and so is discrimination.
When it comes to confronting discrimination based on identity, there is a growing movement within and beyond the human rights community to draw wider attention to these multiple dimensions, and to the social, economic, and historical contexts in which discrimination takes place.
This method of examining the multiple forms of discrimination that different individuals may face in a holistic way is known as “inter-sectionality”; fundamentally, it is a recognition that discrimination is experienced in complex ways, which can often have compounding impacts on one another.
Merely focusing on only one form of discrimination, such as racial identity, without considering other factors like a person’s gender or economic status, means that other, simultaneous rights violations can easily be overlooked or ignored. This can lead to a failure to address the totality of problems and structural disadvantages experienced by groups such as minority women, older people with disabilities, or LGBTI minorities. Focusing on inter-sectionality brings advantages; it acknowledges the complexity of peoples’ experiences, and takes into account their unique social and historical context. For example, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are all contributors to disadvantage for vulnerable populations, so including them in any contextual analysis enriches our ability to understand these populations.
Our understanding of inter-sectionality is still in its infancy. Most institutions with a responsibility to prevent or remedy discrimination - like courts, government institutions, schools, and businesses - need more training and tools to incorporate it into their policies and practices. Inter-sectional approaches focus on society’s response to an individual’s multifaceted identity, rather than slotting that person into rigid categories.
It also acknowledges that discrimination may be less overt now than in the past, and more multi-layered, systemic, and institutionalized. Responses must therefore be more sophisticated, and greater effort is necessary to elevate sensitivity to the connections between race, gender, and social class. That in turn could modernize our understanding of and responses to discrimination - moving beyond the compartmentalization that has characterized most approaches to date.
Safe Spaces for Speaking Up
Everyone should have the right to seek, receive, and impart sincere and credible ideas and information through any form of media, and across any border. Such freedom of expression and information exchange can enable the realization of other human rights. Protecting free speech and access to information is key for advancing human rights.
Ideally, the platforms used to convey this information are accessible to anyone and can be used to their genuine benefit. Yet, platforms have frequently been exploited and manipulated, and governments and other powerful actors have actively sought to obstruct their positive potential. People can only speak up and share opinions in a climate free of fear, yet free expression and the ability to inform the public are often curtailed on grounds of national security - inflaming tension, aiding the spread of lies, impinging on religious freedom, unfairly damaging reputations, and inciting hatred.
Understanding the difference between genuine free expression that should be safeguarded and other types that merit closer scrutiny is crucial. It is necessary to expand opportunities for everyone to speak up without fear, and to develop restrictions that can only be applied when there is a clear incitement to violence. This will require eradicating the barriers to social media access for peaceful views, and safeguarding the fundamental right to expression in ways that enable people around the world to realize their many other rights.
While international law permits restricting communication in well-defined circumstances for limited periods, to deal with specific emergencies, that power has been misused and the result has been increased repression in some instances. Those voices deemed inconvenient to the powers that be can be - and have been frequently - simply removed from social media platforms.
The proliferation of lies and propaganda online calls for a clearer understanding of how to sift truth from falsehoods, and of the ways that hateful rhetoric can be truly dangerous due to its potential to incite violence. Social media platforms are mostly privately-owned, and often apply their own rules inconsistently - perhaps with the intention of preventing the spread of misinformation, but often in ways that result in vulnerable groups being denied access. This can reinforce local cultural biases or sensitivities when it comes to matters like LGBTI rights in countries where same-sex relationships are criminalized, for example
A Stronger Human Rights System
The multilateral system is both under threat and still badly needed. Nine core international human rights instruments spell out in detail states’ obligations with respect to rights and freedoms, like a convention on eliminating all forms of racial discrimination, a convention to eliminate discrimination against women, and a convention against torture. There are also protections of children’s rights, migrants’ rights, and rights of people with disabilities - as well as rights relating to education and standards of health. By ratifying these (and other legal instruments), states accept obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights enshrined.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 following the horrors of World War II, was the first international affirmation of the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people. The Declaration spells out the basic civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that everyone is entitled to - and should respect and protect. It was followed by nations adopting legally-binding “Covenants” - on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights - that together with the Declaration form the International Bill of Rights.
The UN has established mechanisms to monitor states’ compliance with their human rights-related treaty obligations. These Treaty Bodies can raise awareness of violations through country visits and investigations, monitoring reports, dialogues and recommendations, and by taking up individual complaints. But, because they have no independent enforcement provisions, this system has been less-than-able to hold states accountable for gross and systematic abuses.
Another challenge: cities must deal with the inequality between those plugged into globalization and those left behind, particularly in high-tech hubs where growing wealth has left the middle class unable to buy homes, as is the case in San Francisco.
Internal migration remains a significant feature of East Asian countries in particular, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Indonesia alone has an estimated 9.8 million temporary internal migrants, according to a UN report, and about 40% of Beijing’s population are migrants. Addressing diversity also means not leaving people aged 60 and over behind, as this demographic is expected to double in size by 2050 globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that cities with a relatively healthy sense of social solidarity have been more successful in following important directives like social distancing and self-quarantining, which are necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
The Human Rights Impacts of Technology
Most peoples’ lives have been fundamentally transformed by dramatic technological advances. Rapid innovation can have a profound effect on rights both for better and worse.
But as technology continues to evolve at an exponential rate, so will its implications for human rights. There can of course be exceptionally beneficial impacts, for example the satellite data now available that can assist in monitoring human rights situations in areas of conflict or high-risk zones.
Innovation has also helped improve transparency when it comes to labor conditions throughout traditionally-opaque global supply chains. And social media platforms are now a staple for organizing advocacy movements, giving a louder voice to activists, and holding brands and other powerful actors to account. But technology’s impact on human rights can also be extremely detrimental.
Surveillance technology has aided authoritarian leaders targeting dissenting voices. Personal data being collected and manipulated, often without detection or oversight, is affecting behavior, consumption, and political outcomes. And artificial intelligence threatens to reinforce and deepen discrimination through the biases of its human developers. Developments in automation, robotics, and gig work are upending hundreds of thousands of jobs in traditional industries where there are no adequate social safety nets.
Many of the potential human rights impacts linked to technology put businesses in a primary position to actively help safeguard rights, rather than governments. Businesses invent and evolve technologies so rapidly that governments are often far behind in terms of mitigating consequences.
The key to positive human rights outcomes from technology, and preventing and remedying negative impacts, is fostering the ability of the technology and human rights communities to learn from each other, share information, and more deeply collaborate.
So, while the human rights movement has historically focused on the role of states in protection and delivering justice, more recently the most pressing related questions have focused on the private sector’s role. Some of the related challenges include the fact that technology is often protected by strong intellectual property rights to incentivize research and development - leaving human rights experts to frequently operate in the dark, and effectively work backwards to investigate alleged misuse.
Meanwhile technology developers are too often focused on what comes next, while convincing themselves of the positive overall impact of current tools and platforms, and diminishing the threat of abuse.
Human rights begin in “the small places, close to home,” said former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. These rights affirm everyone’s inherent dignity. Yet, while international law is designed to ensure those in power fulfil their obligations to keep societies free from fear and want, only equal access to justice and opportunity can guarantee such freedoms.
And despite extensive efforts to establish systems to protect people, human rights remain under serious threat around the world. More accountable national governments, and more ambitious global alliances dedicated to upholding rights, are now urgently needed.
Most of the world today looks to democratic leaders to solve our biggest problems. The Chinese and Russian leaders did not even bother showing up at the climate summit in Glasgow. But if democratic officials continue to fail us, if they are unable to summon the visionary leadership that this demanding era requires, they risk fueling the frustration and despair that are fertile ground for the autocrats.
This World Report by Human Rights Watch explores the state of the Human Rights in the world in 2022