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Fossil fuel firms could be found guilty for human rights violations

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has ruled that dozens of major fossil fuel companies could be liable – both legally and ethically – for harm caused by climate change.

A group of complainants – including 18 individuals affected by climate change – filed a petition with the commission in 2016. The commission has since been considering the complex issue of whether businesses could be held accountable for the devastation caused by climate change over the past few years.

The case has been complicated by the fact that there is no legal precedent on the issue. The commission held hearings in New York and London, in addition to Manila, seeking evidence from academics, legal experts and individuals affected by climate change.

The 2015 Global Climate Risk Index listed the Philippines as the country most affected by climate change: the archipelago of islands comprising the nation are surrounded by naturally warm waters in the Pacific Ocean with no natural barriers to rising sea levels. Sea levels in the Philippines are rising approximately twice as quickly as the global average and extreme weather has worsened, with five of the deadliest 10 typhoons occurring since 2006. Meanwhile, the country is ill-prepared to respond to climate change-related events, as its citizens are distributed across thousands of islands.

Now, the commission has ruled that 47 companies which contributed significantly to carbon emissions – including oil companies BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Repsol and Chevron – have clearly contributed to anthropogenic climate change and could be held legally and ethically liable for human rights harms in the Philippines associated with climate change, under both civil and criminal law. Although this does not yet mean that the companies have been found guilty of human rights abuses, this is now a real possibility in the Philippines. It will be up to the governments of other individual nations to pass legislation establishing legal responsibility for climate change.

The announcement was made by Commissioner Roberto Eugenio T. Cadiz at the 2019 UN climate change conference (known as COP25) in Madrid. Cadiz explained that companies could be found to have committed crimes “where they have been clearly proved to have engaged in acts of obstruction and wilful obfuscation.” The report also concludes that the companies have a responsibility to invest in clean energy.

Speaking during a different event at COP25, Cadiz said that the commission’s findings could be used as precedent for parties seeking social justice relating to climate change.

Speaking to Democracy Now, director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia Yeb Saño commented that: “It is such a momentous occasion for us. This is very historic for us.” He added that Typhoon Kammuri had damaged 80,000 homes and done $90bn damage in agriculture in the Philippines just as OCP25 opened.

Ashfaq Khalfan, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International, said: “The Philippines Human Rights Commission has today created a beacon of hope for the victims of the climate crisis. This is the first time ever that a human rights body has said that fossil fuel corporations can be found legally responsible for human rights harms linked to climate change. We in the human rights community need to seize on the momentum created by this decision to hold polluters and governments to account.”

Human rights and other ethical issues relating to climate change have been prominent topics of conversation at COP25. Speaking at the event, Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights and the former President of Chile, stated that climate change interferes with the “enjoyment of all human rights” and that fossil fuel companies have been fighting carbon mitigation, including through efforts to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

Young people, particularly from indigenous communities hard-hit by climate change, have been some of the loudest voices of protest heard at COP25, calling for immediate action to reduce carbon emissions.

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