COP21 SERIES: Will developed countries recognize their right-to-health obligations in Paris?

COP21 begins November 30th
COP21 begins November 30th

Alison Blaiklock


After five days of slow, intense and often rocky negotiations in Bonn, a draft text was finally agreed. This text will form the basis of the Conference of Parties (COP21) negotiations at the UN Climate Conference in Paris from November 30 to 11 December.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requires all decisions to be made unanimously or by the consensus of its 196 Parties. All Parties have agreed to this new draft, but developing countries were unhappy with much of the process. They have warned that—as with at Copenhagen six years ago—the talks in Paris may collapse. As the French chief climate change negotiator has said, “There is no Plan B.”

At the Bonn meeting, the Co-Chairs’ initial shortened draft text, called a “non-paper”, was rejected by developing countries as unbalanced, ignoring their concerns, and favoring the United States and developed countries. For a while, it was described on twitter as #UStext. It was only after many insertions had been added that negotiations began. The Co-Chairs barred civil society observers despite the 134 developing country members of the G77-China group wanting them present. There was a new twitter hashtag, “#KeepUsIntheRoom”. It was an achievement to agree on a draft, and one that was described by developing countries as “balanced”. But crucial issues remain to be resolved in Paris.

Respect for human rights, and health, had been marginalized in the Co-Chairs’ non-paper but now they are back again. The new draft is in two parts: a 31-page legally binding “Agreement” which will come into force in 2020, and a 20-page “Decision” that describes the provisions for implementation. Issues still to be decided are shown as options, and/or with possible wording enclosed in square brackets. One count found 1,490 square brackets.

Today the UNFCCC will present a calculation of what will be the aggregate effect of all national commitments to greenhouse gas reduction. The aim of COP21 is an agreement that keeps global warming below 2°C above preindustrial temperatures. The UNFCCC International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the Climate Vulnerability Forum of 20 developing countries especially vulnerable to climate change, and over 100 nations and many civil society organizations want global warming kept below 1.5°C.  Leaders of the Smaller Pacific island States who are “at the frontline to the impacts of climate change,” want global warming kept well below 1.5°Ç, and describe COP21 as the “last chance to . . . ensure the future survival and existence of our nations, people and culture.”

The biggest divisions between developing and developed countries seem to be about fair climate finance. The G77-China group said that developed countries wanted civil society observers excluded in order to avoid scrutiny during negotiations, especially over climate finance. Climate justice advocates call for developed countries to do much more to meet their fair share of responsibility for climate action, a fair process, and a fair deal that respects human rights.

The 2015 Lancet Commission said climate change is global health’s greatest threat and potentially greatest opportunity this century. All Parties to UNFCCC recognize the right to health in international law. Here are some ways in which recognition of the right to health will lead to a better and fairer agreement in Paris.

The human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination give priority to those who are most vulnerable. This requires an agreement that will keep global warming below 1.5°C. It also means having an agreement that pays special attention to vulnerable nations, people whose health is at greatest risk from climate change, and those “who already struggle to enjoy their human rights, including women, children, the elderly and the poor”.

The principles of participation and accountability should ensure civil society observers are present in negotiations. Accountability includes developed nations accepting their obligations for remedial action. It is unjust that the substantial proportion of the health burden of climate change continues to be borne by poorer nations, who have done the least to cause it.

The obligations of developed countries to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health do not stop at their borders and include international co-operation and assistance. Failing to act has already led to retrogression of the right to health for many people, especially in poorer countries.

A binding agreement that strongly promotes and protects the right to health and associated human rights will move the world from retrogression to acceleration of progressive realization of the right to health.


Alison Blaiklock, MBChB, MPHTM is a public health physician and Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer, Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington, New Zealand.


Previous publications by this author in HHRJ:


SDG SERIES: With SDGs Now Adopted, Human Rights Must Inform Implementation and Accountability, September 2015

SDG SERIES: What Might the SDGs Mean for Health and Human Rights? An Introduction to the Series, September 2015

Australia Bars Health and Humanitarian Workers From Speaking About Human Rights Abuses, July 2015

Climate Change and the Right to Health for Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand, June 2014