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Oil Majors Face Human Rights Violations Claims

Philippines

By MarEx 2015-12-09 17:15:27

Responding to a complaint filed by typhoon victims, a Philippines human rights commission agreed on Friday to look into whether large international fossil fuel companies are violating the human rights of its citizens by driving climate change.

Holding oil, gas and coal companies responsible for deaths and financial losses in the Philippines "will be an uphill climb," admitted Roberto Cadiz, a member of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines.

But he said he felt duty bound to take on the case, both because losses from extreme weather are mounting so rapidly and because other efforts to curb climate-changing emissions are "moving very slowly, if at all," providing the impetus to explore other avenues.

Cadiz said the commission would launch an inquiry in the first quarter of 2016.

Activists called the complaint one of a first wave of legal challenges seeking redress for human right violations from climate change. It joins a string of recent legal filings, in countries from Germany to Pakistan to the Netherlands, seeking to force faster action to address climate change and its impacts, or claiming damages from energy companies.

"These cases are coming. There are many in the pipeline," said Alyssa Johl, a senior attorney at the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law.

Legal experts at U.N. negotiations in Paris, which aim to seal a new global deal to curb climate change and deal with its impacts, compared the fledgling legal push to seek damages from oil, gas and coal companies to early efforts to take on tobacco companies over health damage caused by smoking.

Winning compensation could take decades, or ultimately fail, they admitted. But simply filing suits can put pressure on fossil fuel companies and potentially drive away investors, they said.

"Companies fear nothing more than a lawsuit. The best way to get their attention is to say we have a legal basis for a claim and we're going to bring a lawsuit," said Gregory Regaignon, a lawyer and research director of the U.K.-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which looks at the human rights implications of company action.

The aim is to "reach companies where their assets are," he said. "That's what they care about most and how we're going to reach remedies."

"DIFFICULT - BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE"

The Philippines complaint, brought with the support of organizations including Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Amnesty International and the Union of Concerned Scientists, asks the country's human rights commission to look at the responsibility of 50 big investor-owned fossil fuel companies in causing climate-change related human rights violations.

The companies, including giants Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhilips, have contributed a large share of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions now driving climate change, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Climate Justice Programme and Greenpeace International.

"It is only fair and just that the companies that have extracted and profited the most from fossil fuels account for the resulting harm and take measures to prevent more harm, to protect the rights of people in the context of climate change," said Zelda Soriano, an attorney with Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

"Yes, it's going to be a difficult investigation, a very complicated investigation…. But the petitioners believe it is not impossible," she said.

The storm-vulnerable Philippines is widely ranked as one of the countries most severely impacted by extreme weather driven by climate change. Typhoon Haiyan, in 2013, killed more than 6,000 people and caused an estimated $13 billion in damage.

Veronica "Derek" Cabe, one of the petitioners in the human rights commission complaint, said she spent Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 huddling in wet clothes with her two-year-old niece and other family members in her home's attic for 12 hours as floods surged through Manila.

"We saw floating people, floating animals, floating coffins. We could not do anything, we could not help them. It was like watching a horror movie and the cruel part is we could not turn it off," she said.

As such storms become more frequent, "should we just accept this as a matter of our fate?" the 42-year-old community organizer asked. "I believe something is wrong… that we cannot live like this forever, that there should be accountability."

Creating a case to bring fossil fuel companies to task for human rights violations clearly will be an immense challenge for the Philippines commission – what Soriano described as "a small human rights agency in a developing country."

But Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, said his organization had been approached by foundations and trusts that may be able to provide financial and capacity support for the effort.

Anna Abad, a climate justice campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, called the Philippines complaint a first step toward justice for those hit by climate-linked disasters in the country.

"For the longest time since they started their business, these carbon polluters have been invincible. Nobody has challenged their social license and their role in climate change," she said.

"This is one step in a whole legal strategy of making sure those complicit in climate change are held accountable."

CLIMATE CHANGE AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Climate change is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time, says Savio Carvalho, Senior Advisor on International Development and Human Rights for Amnesty International. 

What has climate change got to do with human rights?

Extreme weather-related disasters and rising seas will destroy homes and ruin people’s ability to earn a living. What’s more, unless emissions are reduced significantly, around 600 million people are likely to experience drought and famine as a result of climate change. So you can see there’s a direct link between climate change and human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and housing.

How are women affected by the changing climate?

Across the world, women form the majority of self-employed, small-scale farmers, so droughts, floods and crop failures will hit them first and hardest. They’re also more likely to take on the burden of collecting water, so will be acutely affected by severe water shortages. 

What does it mean for Indigenous Peoples?

Indigenous Peoples are often at the frontline of global warming because of their dependence on the environment. Many live in fragile ecosystems that are particularly sensitive to changes in climate. This threatens their cultural identity, which is closely linked to their traditional land and livelihoods. 

Will climate change mean more refugees?

As famines, droughts and natural disasters become more frequent, so the numbers of people on the move across borders will increase. While not all of these people will meet the legal definition of “refugees”, they should still be entitled to support from the countries most responsible for climate change.

Will things like rising temperatures and sea levels lead to more wars?

Quite possibly. We do know that climate change will exacerbate well-known causes of war, such as competition over natural resources. And this will increase the risk of violent conflict in the future. 

What should governments do?

They must do all they can to reduce carbon emissions, including phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels. They must also help people adapt to climate change, and provide compensation, for example to those who have lost their homes because of rising sea levels.

What is Amnesty International doing?

Together with partners, we're pressing governments and institutions like the UN to take concrete and urgent actions on climate change. This isn’t about charity or aid, it’s about human rights and justice.