By Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda
Typhoon survivors, advocates, and the Greenpeace network celebrated a huge victory after the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) released a ground-breaking report on its National Inquiry on Climate Change (NICC). For communities experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, this is one step toward holding corporations responsible for exacerbating the climate crisis, and demanding States to accelerate measures to prevent climate change.
The petition primarily sought that the CHR issue a finding on the responsibility of major fossil-fuel companies (Carbon Majors) for human rights impacts, impairments, infringements, abuses, and/or violations resulting from the effects of the climate crisis in the Philippines. Petitioners claimed that the fossil fuel industry has a moral and legal obligation to prevent business activities from harming people and communities.
Petitioners also argued that the Carbon Majors knew about climate change and its consequences for over half a century, yet continued to mine, drill, and burn fossil fuels while those most vulnerable face the ever-increasing, devastating consequences. The Carbon Majors that responded sought the dismissal of the petition on the grounds that the CHR had no jurisdiction to consider the subject matter of climate change.
The CHR’s climate change inquiry was novel because this was the first time that a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) has investigated the human rights impacts of the climate crisis.
We are pleased that the CHR’s findings generally reflect the evidence established by the petitioners during the entire course of the proceeding. The following is a summary of key points in the CHR’s findings:
Confirmation of jurisdiction
- Despite efforts by Carbon Major to dismiss the petition and challenge the jurisdiction of the CHR, jurisdiction and territorial issues did not stall the inquiry proceedings. Referring to domestic and international laws, the CHR asserted its mandate and held it that has the authority to investigate violations of human rights of the Philippine people.
Human-induced climate change and its unequal impacts
- The CHR determined that climate change is real, anthropogenic, a human rights issue, and that the burden of climate change falls disproportionately on the Filipino people.
- The CHR gave weight to published and peer-reviewed studies and updates (collectively called the Carbon Majors study) as well as the IPCC AR5 report in determining that anthropogenic contributions to climate change are quantifiable and substantial (CHR report, page 99).
Climate denialism machinery of fossil fuel companies
- The CHR also determined that Carbon Majors had early awareness, notice or knowledge of their products’ adverse impacts on the environment and climate system. This determination was based on internal documents from the fossil fuel industry (including the Carbon Majors), publications, and peer-reviewed studies (pg. 101). Moreover, the CHR also determined that they engaged in wilful obfuscation and obstruction to prevent meaningful climate action (pgs. 107-108). The CHR also noted that climate change denial and efforts to delay the global transition away from fossil fuel dependence still persist today (pg. 110).
Responsibility of private enterprises to protect human rights
- The CHR pointed out that respondent Carbon Majors have a responsibility, under international and domestic law, to respect and protect the human rights of Filipinos in the context of climate change. The CHR emphasized the responsibility of corporations and business enterprises to respect human rights in the context of climate change, applying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the Principles on Climate Change Obligations of Enterprises (pgs. 95 to 96). Their responsibility includes the monitoring, mitigation, and prevention of risks from their climate polluting products.
Responsibilities of States to ensure private actor accountability
- The CHR identified that States, including the Philippine government (executive, legislative and judiciary), have a legal responsibility to hold Carbon Majors accountable for their actions to exacerbate the climate crisis. It underlined that establishing legal and moral responsibility would represent a significant step toward achieving climate justice.
The CHR recommended several courses of action to the Carbon Majors named in the petition, other carbon-intensive corporations and industries (investor-owned or State-owned), States, financial institutions, NHRIs, and other institutions. Specific recommendations were made to the Philippine government, such as declaring a climate emergency, revisiting the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions, and implementing coal moratoriums.
A new question is how to build on the CHR’s findings to build a safer, healthier future for Filipinos. While the decision of the CHR is not legally binding, the findings provide solid grounds to hold the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies liable for climate impacts. The country’s new administration should be expected to act on the CHR’s findings, among others holding big polluters legally accountable for the human rights impacts of their business activities, and accelerating the clean energy transition.
Beyond new pathways in domestic policy and litigation, the NICC report adds a new dimension to the climate movement that could complement and speed up initiatives around the world. It gives more context to the different causes driving the climate crisis and emphasises the human rights impacts of climate change. This is both an important instrument and milestone that needs to be followed through with concerted efforts in the continuing fight for our climate and our future.
The decision is another tool that climate lawyers and activists can utilise to assert their human rights and exact accountability from fossil fuel companies and governments.
Another recent development that can help this cause is the United Nations General Assembly Resolution recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. These milestones can strengthen the advocacy for human rights and climate justice, and further engender initiatives that use human rights as a frame for climate litigation.
The NICC decision reflects the growing reality that citizens from all over the world can pressure their governments to implement their international commitments (e.g., Paris Agreement) as well as their national laws/policies relating to climate and human rights. They can lodge complaints/petitions before other NHRIs, administrative agencies and even in judicial courts. Other NHRIs can likewise take cognizance of similar inquiries and undertake investigations on climate and human rights. A study done by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law indicated that, in addition to the Philippines, there have been cases filed before courts in China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand. India was a leader in this aspect, with numerous cases filed before the courts.
In the Philippines, Filipinos can pressure our national government to meaningfully implement its human rights obligations. Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines has been engaging with law students and the youth in seminars and conferences to discuss the CHR’s decision and advocate for climate justice. It has also organized meetings with the staff of Congress to discuss climate change, climate justice, and the CHR’s National Inquiry on Climate Change. The impact of the CHR decision can extend beyond climate litigation and serve as the necessary catalyst to reform the legal system into one that puts human rights over company profits.
Read more about the National Inquiry on Climate Change:
In the spirit of the Pledge, we will from now on ask all blog authors the same question aimed at identifying the exact points where their field of law could contribute to fighting climate change:
If you had the power to change one thing in your legal field to drive climate action – what would it be?
Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda: “I would pass legislation that would make it easier for vulnerable communities to exact accountability and seek damages from companies who are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.”
What was the moment when I realized for myself what role that law could play in enabling just and rapid climate action?
Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda: “In 2014, when I was invited by Greenpeace to join a workshop among lawyers to explore legal actions against the major carbon emitters. At that time, the Philippines had the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases (RPEC) that sought to, among others, address issues of standing, costs and speed of environmental litigation. The discussions during the workshop enlightened me on the need to broaden options on legal remedies and combine these with advocacy actions (eg. campaigns).”
Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda has worked as a public interest environmental lawyer for 30 years doing legal empowerment work for poor and marginalized communities as well as public interest environmental litigation. Legal empowerment has entailed the pursuit of advocacy, education, and environmental law enforcement. She has likewise been a professorial lecturer of natural resources and environmental law for 25 years.