May 9, 2024 - World

Human rights court mulls rules on climate change action

A street is flooded with brown water, surrounded by tall and old buildings, and a person is seen from the back walking through the water.

A flooded street in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, on Tuesday, after heavy rains that have displaced thousands in the region. Photo: Jefferson Bernardes/Getty Images

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights could reframe how governments across Latin America and the Caribbean — and perhaps beyond — deal with climate change and its effects on people.

Why it matters: A case before the court is unfolding as experts issue warnings about how little time remains for countries, corporations and people to reduce emissions and curb global warming.

  • Latin America and the Caribbean are among the regions most affected by and most vulnerable to climate change, despite generating less than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

State of play: Colombia and Chile last year asked the court to issue an advisory opinion on what responsibilities nations have to protect the environment and how they should adopt measures to mitigate the effects of climate change and help the most vulnerable adapt.

  • "The intention is to promote measures to guarantee human rights, and also the public policies required to respond to this phenomenon in an urgent, equitable, just and sustainable manner," the petitioners wrote.
  • The first hearings in the case, held late last month in Barbados, drew hundreds of speakers and briefs in support of the court issuing a legal framework, suggesting regulations or sharing best practices.
  • Activists, NGOs, academic groups and others have suggested several actions, including that the court recommend asylum rules for people displaced due to catastrophic events linked to climate change and to have specific measures to protect environmental activists. Latin America is one of the most dangerous place for environmental activists.

Between the lines: The court's advisory opinions, while not binding, have in the past been key to human rights advances in the region.

  • For example, a 2017 opinion advising all countries to adopt laws recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry and of trans people to have documents reflecting their gender identity led several nations to enshrine equal marriage as a right and adopt rules for updating IDs.

What they're saying: "The moment is historic and the court has a unique opportunity to make history on this issue," Rosa Celorio, an associate dean and lecturer at George Washington University Law School, tells Axios Latino.

  • She adds that a clear set of guidelines would help the 25 countries that follow the court's rulings and suggestions to create laws, policies and programs to sufficiently tackle the problem.
  • Citizens and NGOs would also have tools to take specific, individual claims to their local courts using the IACHR opinion.

The big picture: The case could resonate beyond the Americas, Celorio says, as the upcoming opinion "can become a very conclusive precedent as other international courts start looking into this matter."

  • For example, the International Court of Justice, in which all 193 UN members are parties, has also received a petition to review state's obligations in the face of climate change, and is now calling for initial filings.
  • The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled states have the responsibility to protect individuals from climate change's impacts.

What's next: The IACHR will hold another round of hearings at the end of this month in Brazil, with hundreds more affected communities and groups invited to share their experiences.

  • There is no set date for the court to publish its advisory opinion after that, but Celorio says it could come by the end of this year.

Subscribe to Axios Latino to get vital news about Latinos and Latin America, delivered to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Go deeper