Why the Philippines could set a climate liability precedent

Zelda dT Soriano, Greenpeace Philippines

The Philippines has suffered greatly from the adverse effects of climate change despite its limited contributions to it. It could soon establish liability for major climate change contributors.

Part of Climate Dialogues blog series

There is an air of anticipation around Greenpeace Southeast Asia this month as we prepare to file a petition to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines to investigate the responsibility of Chevron, Shell and other big oil, coal and gas producers for the human rights impacts resulting from their contributions to climate change. The petition could be precedent-setting in the climate liability movement.

According to Carbon Majors data [1], there are only 90 companies and entities whose actions have made a measurable, demonstrable and cumulative contribution to climate change.  Yet, none of them are being held accountable for the catastrophic human impacts of this contribution.  The upcoming petition has the potential to change that. 

The Philippines is already a nation severely affected by natural disasters. In fact, according to the World Bank, the international disaster database, shows that between 2000 to 2008, weather-related disasters accounted for 98% of all people affected and 78% of all people who died due to disasters in the Philippines [2]. Last year, based on government reports collected by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an estimated three million people were displaced by natural hazard-related disasters in the country during 2014 [3]. Unaccounted here is the grief and agony of losing loved ones, of losing a limb or one’s mind, not to mention hard-earned property during disasters. Science is telling us that it will likely only get worse with the impacts of climate change. And these harms resulting from the impacts of climate change have human rights implications.

“There exists broad agreement that climate change generally negatively affects the realization of human rights,” according to the 2009 Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of the UN. It also “stresses the importance of accountability mechanisms in the implementation of measures and policies in the area of climate change and requires access to administrative and judicial remedies in cases of human rights violations.”

Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights which arises from a “global standard of expected conduct applicable to all businesses in all situations” according to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

With respect to the manner in which companies should respect these rights, Foundational Principle 13 of the Guiding Principles provides that business enterprises are required to:

(a) Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur; [and]

(b) Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.

States on the other hand have obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, both within their territories and extraterritorially, based on international law. Specifically, states have extraterritorial obligations (ETOs) to respect, protect and fulfil human rights abroad. The Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights provide guidance and legal grounds for the effective implementation of ETOs. With respect to the regulation of corporations, international human rights treaty bodies monitoring implementation of treaties on civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of the child, and on racial discrimination have all confirmed that States must take necessary measures to prevent their corporations from interfering with the enjoyment of human rights both within their territory and in other countries.

The powerful targets and cause of action in the climate change and human rights petition is reminiscent of Filipinos’ struggle for human rights and democracy three decades ago.  Former opposition leader, Ninoy Aquino’s words against the dictatorship of the past are relevant to our struggle against the big corporate carbon polluters: “…as long as man refuses to be defeated, he is never defeated.”

The Philippines has a unique opportunity to take its human rights legacy one step further and set a precedent by holding polluters accountable for climate impacts.  In order to make this a reality, the petition needs the indomitable spirit of Filipino human rights defenders of the people-power days. It needs petitioners and supporters who will not be intimidated by the big, powerful corporate carbon polluters and who will not accept the injustice in the context of climate change. 

Zelda dT Soriano is legal and political advisor of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.  

References:

[1] http://www.climateaccountability.org/pdf/Media%20Outline%20Feb15.pdf

[2] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2010/04/15198885/strategic-approach-climate-change-philippines

[3] http://www.internal-displacement.org/south-and-south-east-asia/philippines/2015/philippines-long-term-recovery-challenges-remain-in-the-wake-of-massive-displacement