Philippines: Landmark inquiry into climate change and human rights

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines conducted a landmark inquiry into the impact of climate change on the human rights of the Filipino people, holding hearings across the country, as well as in London and New York, during 2018.

At the close of the public hearings, Inquiry Chairperson Commissioner Roberto Cadiz described climate change as “a human rights issue, a global issue and an existential issue”.

He noted that the inquiry sought to be dialogical’, rather than adversarial, and that the global nature of the inquiry reflected the trans-boundary character of the issue.

The panel received amicus curiae briefs and other submissions from advocates, legal and scientific experts, and academics from all parts of globe on various issues relevant to the case. The inquiry also heard directly from farmers, indigenous communities and those affected by Typhoon Yolanda, which devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013.

We call the forest our home. Now our source of water, food and medicine has been destroyed

Rica Diamzon Cahilig, from the Ayta Ambala indigenous group in Bataan

Background of the inquiry

In September 2015, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, together with 13 Filipino civil society organisations and 18 individuals, petitioned the Commission to investigate “the responsibility of the Carbon Majors for human rights violations or threats of violations resulting from the impacts of climate change”. The 47 respondents to the petition – the ‘Carbon Majors’ – are investor-owned oil, natural gas and coal producers and cement manufacturers.

The petitioners argued that the adverse effects of climate change threaten the enjoyment of a range of internationally-protected human rights, most critically the rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to food, to water, to sanitation, to adequate housing, and to self-determination.

They also claimed that the ‘carbon majors’ have a responsibility for adverse human rights impacts as a result of their contribution to global climate change and their failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their activities and their products, despite the capacity to do so, and their knowledge of the harms posed by climate change.

Commissioner Cadiz explained that, when the Commission accepted the petition, there was no legal precedent to help it navigate through the case. The Commission also lacked the resources to handle a case of that magnitude.

However, he said that, unlike courts which are largely governed by precedents, the challenge for national human rights institutions is to test boundaries and create new paths; to be bold and creative; to be more idealistic and less pragmatic; to promote soft laws becoming hard laws; and to be able to see beyond legal technicalities and establish guiding principles that can later become binding treaties.

That was the reason the Commission decided to establish a national inquiry to explore the issues. The inquiry was supported by the Asia Pacific Forum of Human Rights Institutions, GANHRI, OHCHR, the European Union, the Spanish Aid Agency, the International Bar Association, and other governments.

Commissioner Cadiz expressed hope that the inquiry will help establish clear mechanisms and processes for hearing human rights cases, especially those with extra-territorial obligations. He also hoped that their inquiry would help to clarify standards for corporate reporting of ‘carbon majors’ on their activities relating to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as help identify basic rights and duties relative to the impacts of climate change.

More information is available from the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines.