Attorney Roda Verheyen, left, testified before the Philippines Commission on Human RightsAttorney Roda Verheyen, left, testified that the law could evolve to hold climate polluters responsible for human rights violations. Photo credit: Germanwatch

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By Isabella Kaminski

The possibility of holding companies legally responsible for human rights violations was the latest aspect discussed in the Philippines Commission for Human Rights’ investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate change.

At the latest evidence session at the London School of Economics this week, the commission heard more personal testimony from survivors of extreme weather disasters and experts in climate science, attribution, litigation and risk. But it also delved into whether corporations have responsibilities for upholding human rights, with several legal experts explaining how international and domestic laws may determine that they do.

The hearing in London followed previous ones in New York and Manila and, as with the earlier hearings, none of the 47 companies being investigated testified or participated. The companies that responded to the inquiry when it was launched in 2015 challenged the commission’s ability to investigate them because they don’t operate directly in the Philippines and argued that climate change isn’t a human rights issue under the law.

Environmental lawyer and academic Linda Siegele explained how the link between human rights and climate change had evolved internationally, from no mention at all in the original UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, to an explicit acknowledgment in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement that parties should “respect, promote and consider their human rights obligations when taking action to address climate change.”

Dr. Roda Verheyen, a lawyer involved in several high-profile climate litigation suits, told the commission that human rights are normally only applicable between governments and individuals, and do not generally play a role between private entities unless courts are interpreting contracts, or nuisance or tort provisions in statutes and common law rules.

She said climate change is still largely regulated as a environmental issue but the human rights aspect is an “emerging” area. Verheyen said many of her cases involve human rights claims, including Lliuya v. RWE, in which Verheyen represents a Peruvian farmer suing a large German utility for climate impacts in his mountain village in Peru.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights published an advisory opinion earlier this year that equates environmental protection with human rights. The UN’s special rapporteur for human rights and the environment, David Boyd, recently argued to the UN general assembly that the international body should recognize a healthy climate as a human right.

Verheyen also pointed to the People’s Climate Case, in which 10 families are challenging the European Union over its 2030 climate target, which makes human rights claims under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. A suit she recently helped three families bring against the German government also argues that not meeting the country’s 2020 climate target infringes on the plaintiffs’ human rights to property, work and health. “It should be pretty clear around the world that we’re dealing with a human rights issue,” she said.

Verheyen concluded the Philippines commission’s attempt to investigate the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for human rights violations resulting from the impacts of climate change “is novel and could help to shape law internationally.”

Another expert witness argued that both states and enterprises have “discernible legal obligations to reduce their emissions.” Dr. Jaap Spier, professor of law and global challenges at the University of Amsterdam, worked with colleagues to publish the Principles on Climate Obligations of Enterprises, and said many laws hold that companies have to comply with human rights law, and that these are often endorsed by companies themselves so “they can’t be surprised when people say they’re affected.”

Spier said the fossil fuel companies do not bear all the responsibility for global warming. “It would mean that all others could argue they don’t have obligations,” he said, emphasizing that governments must still lead in combating climate change.

There is also a moral case that fossil fuel companies should act on climate change, according to Dr. Henry Shue, professor emeritus of politics and international relations and senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for International Studies. He testified that because climate stability is essential for civilized society, including productive agriculture and safe housing, it is “quite clear that the harms done by climate change violate human rights.”

He said that everyone has an ethical responsibility to change their behaviour if they are engaging in harm. “One important feature of risk assessment is communicating the risks involved so that other people can act on the information,” Shue said. “If you’re not stating the risk of your behavior you’re not taking fairly your obligation not to harm people. And if you’re not communicating those risks you’re not allowing other people the opportunity to protect themselves.”

The commissioners said they were disappointed that the 47 companies that are the subject of the inquiry declined to attend in an official capacity, but Commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit told Climate Liability News that “I think they’re listening.”

“We have mentioned cases that single out particular cases of harm done to a particular community,” she said. “But this inquiry echoes the message of the IPCC that there has to be collective and concerted action so that we can stop climate change. That’s the message that we can convey in our non-adversarial process of inquiry.”

As well as addressing the impact of climate change in the Philippines, Commissioner Roberto Eugenio Cadiz said he hoped the large volume of expert information and data produced by the inquiry could be used by others to bring cases around the world and to put pressure on the Carbon Majors to transition away from fossil fuels.

The next and final hearing is scheduled for Manila on Dec. 11-12 and the commission expects to release its conclusions early next year.