2021 proved to be yet another year of devastating extreme weather events. From heatwaves to flash floods, retreating mountain glaciers to hurricanes, the past year has been yet another reminder of the ensuing climate crisis. In the same vein, the 21st Informal Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Seminar on Human Rights (ASEMHRS21), which took place from the 16-18 March 2022, saw the congregation of government officials, NHRI representatives, academics and civil society members sharing their anxieties and recommendations to mitigate the patently clear impacts of the climate disaster, especially upon human rights.

In his keynote address, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment Dr David R. BOYD, steamrolled through arresting statistics before highlighting that despite the ratification of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) three decades ago, we are still nowhere near meeting the goals of the framework. It’s perplexing that we find ourselves in this position despite existing plethora of national and international treaties and legal infrastructure which facilitate the “just transition” to a green economy and sustainable way of living.

As many presenters reiterated, human rights defenders and civil society activists have historically been the champions of revolutionary changes, from the suffragettes, civil rights movement to today’s global climate change advocacy by youths. Senior Attorney for Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) Sebastian DUYCK, who served as Working Group Rapporteur, called for moving beyond tokenism, by integrating civil society input, be it indigenous groups, women, and minorities, into decision-making processes related to human rights and climate change which are usually at the national and international level. Memorably, youth activist and Lead on National Politics at Climate Alliance (Switzerland), Marie-Claire GRAF encouraged leaders to consider the viewpoints and aspirations of youths during deliberations, evoking the rather haunting imagery of an “empty chair” during meetings representing future generations, and how we are ultimately accountable to them.

The presentation by representatives from the European Investment Bank (EIB) regarding the EU Climate Bank’s Ambition and Roadmap 2021-2025 was encouraging and more so if it could set the precedent for more financial institutions and multilateral institutions to supply funds to accelerate climate initiatives that will benefit the even the poorest sustaining impacts of human rights infractions. The roadmap promised fossil fuel divestments, aligning with Paris Agreement, promoting woman entrepreneurs, and requiring human rights to be part of environmental impact assessments (EIA). However, during a Q & A, a members of the audience expressed his doubts over the implementation and effectiveness of such measures, given the unavoidable influence of global politics and vested interests. The short answer would be to work closely with National Human Rights Institutes (NHRIs) who are able to navigate through the labyrinth of bureaucratic politics and offer realistic human rights and climate change targets adapted to their respective countries. As Commissioner Roberto CADIZ from the Philippines Commission on Human Rights emphasized in his closing day speech, NHRIs should be viewed as partners of governments in “upholding human dignity” through enhancing human rights, and not as “pesky institutions” fixated on being deliberately obstructive to national interests.

There has been criticism levelled against the Global North by developing countries, that talks involving human rights and climate change and proposed solutions, lack contextual considerations, and are not adapted to prevailing conditions in developing areas like South Asia and Southeast Asia. This where the Seminar proved to be an excellent platform to consider broader perspectives through its working group discussions, particularly working group two which discussed, “promoting the full enjoyment of human rights by all persons affected by climate change”. Dr Stellina JOLLY from South Asian University, served as Working Group Rapporteur and highlighted that countries such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines lack robust legal mechanisms and resilience and should therefore look to pre-existing institutions and laws to safeguard the environment and rights. Apart from capacity-building, she relayed recommendations that called for capacity-strengthening, community perspectives and the idea of bestowing dignity to climate migrants. Lead Rapporteur, Dr Annalisa SAVARESI from the University of Eastern Finland, lent her impeccable expertise on the burgeoning area of climate litigation. The idea of the “common person” having the agency to protect themselves against the trespasses of big business, or being overlooked by institutions, is truly a remarkable development. However, she like Dr Jolly, noted that Asia was in its infancy stage with regards to climate litigation, and promoted the ideal of a “single unified regional organization” for Asia as a means of knowledge-sharing.

We as global citizens, find ourselves – yet again – at an inflection point whereby the actions or inactions taken over the next decade will have repercussions on generations to come. The Seminar brought together participants from all corners of society, and it was heartwarming to witness the hope that perseveres, despite being confronted with facts and lived realities that make it next to impossible to do so. As mentioned earlier, a paradigm shift is in order, moving away from false dilemmas and isolation of issues for the sake of quick resolution. Compared to thirty years ago, we cannot possibly point to the lack of awareness or science-based evidence for the current predicament. It is the lack of will to enforce climate change instruments, and tendency to search for loopholes that needs to be held accountable. Dr Linda SULISTIAWATI‘s comment during the Seminar should be food for thought for us all moving forward – “climate change and human rights is not something to be balanced” with the likes of economic interests, but one that “should be prioritised.”


About the author

Gomathi d/o Ravindran is currently finishing her Master’s in Political Science from the Australian National University, Canberra. Her interests lie in International Relations, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, Human Rights and Political Behaviour.


Human Rights as a Paradigm for Climate Action


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