Representatives of the indigenous peoples' caucus protest at the World Climate Summit (Photo: Monika Skolimowska via Getty Images)

How the COP24 climate talks betrayed the fight for human rights

A volunteer for the Indigenous Peoples Caucus at this year’s COP24 climate talks, Kera Sherwood-O’Regan reports back from Poland on the indigenous and human rights injustice that has just been delivered by the summit. 

It’s 2.58am on Sunday in Kraków, Poland. After an intense 48-hour final day at the COP24 Climate Negotiations an hour and a half away in Katowice, myself and thousands of other climate nerds are poring over the new text that will shape the way states combat the looming climate crisis.

While much of New Zealand has spent the past two weeks winding down to a summer Kirihimete, a weird subset of the global population – diplomats, activists, indigenous leaders, vegan pamphleteers, journalists, exasperated looking baristas, and let’s not forget the Polish Policja – have been occupied round the clock in a conference where world leaders finally came (more or less) to an agreement about how to move forward together on climate change.

The COP21 conference in 2015 saw the creation of the Paris Agreement, with states around the world agreeing to work collectively to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2C”. This year’s conference has seen the development of the ‘Paris Rulebook’ which gives the agreement substance, and setting out how it will actually be implemented.

Coming to consensus on such an important plan sounds like a great win for global diplomacy. The catch? Achieving that consensus included hacking a huge human rights-shaped hole out of the heart of the agreement.

Human rights references in the Paris Agreement were hard fought for and won by global civil society campaigning, and indeed the hard work of many of our Māori activists. This commitment to rights has been echoed again and again throughout the Katowice conference, with many groups, including the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and our homegrown rangatahi rōpu, Te Ara Whatu, campaigning directly for rights to be front and centre.

Despite numerous recommendations from human rights experts and advocates, references to human rights were gutted from the text, with the exception of the preamble and a chapter on carbon markets, which Brazil effectively blocked until 2019.

This situation is made all the more bitter by the proposal to strip rights from the text coinciding with Human Rights Day, the 70th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It also happened immediately after the parties (states) and indigenous peoples celebrated a supposedly historic step forward with the adoption of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform during the first week of the talks.

Poetic.

It’s now 12.43am Tuesday, and the extra two days or so of reflection has only made the gravity of this situation clearer. I’m still not really sure how to process the last two weeks, let alone this  heavy issue of human rights. Tonight, I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell about climate change. We are quick to remind “non-believers” that climate change will affect everyone, and it’s true on one level. But on another, we know it is already affecting some more than others, and this weekend’s decision to write rights out of the text makes that cut a little deeper.

We know that marginalised groups such as indigenous peoples, disabled people, women, and those in developing nations have contributed least to climate change, and yet bear the brunt of its effects. Look to the recent Camp Fire in Paradise, California to see that even “disasters” discriminate. Many of those who perished were elderly and the disabled, for whom escape was literally inaccessible.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve also heard indigenous people from around the world share their own stories of climate change. Those aren’t stories set in the future. They’re not talking about what will happen in five or ten or 20 years. They’re sharing how climate change is already on their doorstep and in some cases, threatening to knock the door down.

Kaidynce Storr, a 17-year-old from Tuktoyatuk in the Canadian Arctic, told a room full of our indigenous caucus that her “home is sinking” and how she fears that, six feet away from the eroding coastline, the house is “one storm away from falling into the ocean.” Other youth from her rōpu shared how the traditional knowledge they learned from their elders no longer matched the ecosystem they saw before their eyes, as the permafrost thins, as algae blooms create dead zones in their awa, and as their traditional fishing spots are now home to different species of fish than generations before them.

As the communities on the frontlines of climate change, and the communities leading the way in climate solutions, we deserve to be directly involved in decision making that affects our communities. Yet looking at the text that has come out of COP24, we barely feature. Stripping human rights language, and especially direct references to indigenous rights, opens a channel for countries to railroad indigenous and human rights in the name of climate action.

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Sidelining indigenous rights under the guise of clean development is not a novel opportunity either. Under the Paris Agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, the Panamanian government attempted to claim carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) through the Barro Blanco Dam. The dam development, however, repeatedly excluded indigenous communities from information and decision making about the dam, and forced indigenous Ngaäbe people from their homes. While eventually withdrawn from the CDM in 2016, this, and other such cases set a dangerous precedent and make it even more important that human rights remain at the core of these climate negotiations.

Thinking about what has been cut out of this agreement, the apocalyptic image that is stuck in my mind is the prospect of our own wāhi tapu back home being desecrated to make way for solar plants or wind farms. It can be easy to think that something like that wouldn’t happen in Aotearoa, and for sure, there are other protections in place that would hopefully prevent such flagrant disregard for our indigenous rights, but if there’s one thing this COP has taught me, it’s that we can’t take anything for granted.

The erosion of rights starts out slowly, and subtly, and this disappointing outcome for the Rulebook should be a reminder that we cannot take these rights for granted. We cannot simply rely on the good faith of states. We should take note that the country responsible for punting the one rights-inclusive part of the Rulebook to later negotiations is also the one who just elected a President who has promised mining on indigenous Amazon whenua, amongst other anti-environmental, anti-indigenous, and anti-human rights kaupapa.

While we are right to be proud of UNDRIP, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and other protections we have in place in Aotearoa, it looks likely that our indigenous cousins in Brazil, and elsewhere around the world have a steep uphill battle ahead. Having spent the past three weeks surrounded by indigenous strangers from around the world who very quickly became whānau, I’m reminded that while we need to step up the mahi and keep te ahi kā burning, we also need to both tautoko as well as draw strength from our indigenous whānau across the globe.


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