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January 15 – Coming off the hottest year on record, the dangers of climate change are increasingly understood, including by business and wider society. Less understood is the link between combatting our climate crisis and supporting basic rights and liberties.

Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, summed it up best when she said: “Climate change is the greatest threat to human rights in the 21st century”. Extreme weather, disruption and upheaval, and conflict over resources prevent people the world over from leading safe and healthy lives. Sadly, the poorest and most vulnerable are impacted most.

We need a collective response to climate change that has justice, compassion and fairness at its heart. As we enter one of the most profound periods of social and economic transformation in human history, we must protect the most fundamental freedoms of all.

Despite its shortcomings, last month’s COP28 in Dubai at least put greater focus on climate justice. Overall, the talks reached a better outcome than many had expected. But the United Arab Emirates’ ability to lead bold action was limited by its government’s ties to the oil industry, and because of its dubious record on human rights. This was a problem in Egypt the year before, and it threatens to undermine the upcoming COP29, which to the surprise of many will be held in Azerbaijan.

Oil and gas already make up around 90% of Azerbaijan’s export revenues, and the government is openly working to increase gas production. At the same time, people suffer torture, arbitrary detentions and lack of an independent judiciary, while the government continues to hold more than 100 political prisoners. Independent media is stifled, with six journalists recently imprisoned. This raises the question: will the thousands of independent journalists willingly put themselves at risk to cover – and potentially criticise – COP29 in Azerbaijan?

Last year, Azerbaijani forces drove more than 100,000 Armenians from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh after a prolonged siege. Human rights organisations have described these actions as tantamount to genocide. Rewarding such behaviour by allowing the country to host COP29 sends the wrong message to the international community. As things stand, it is difficult to see how Baku will be either willing or able to unite the world around urgent climate action. How can you push others to higher ambition, while continuing to build your economy on fossil fuels? How can you convene the different players in a spirit of inclusion and compromise, while violently suppressing dissent?

Some are already saying that we should effectively bypass the summit, accepting that it will be a non-event, and instead focus on COP30, which will be held in Brazil. But we do not have the luxury of time to waste. I believe three developments could still improve the outlook for this year’s talks.

First, while the Azerbaijan decision appears done and dusted, the United Nations could end its ambivalence towards COP hosts. It could explicitly recognise concerns over Azerbaijan’s record on climate and human rights. And it could commit to a more transparent and robust selection process from here. This is not about chasing perfection or setting the bar unrealistically high. But, for their credibility and effectiveness, future COPs should be hosted by nations that are sincere about decarbonising, and committed to the liberties on which successful transition depends. Sharper selection criteria should be applied.

Second, business can exert more pressure. When I was chief executive of Unilever, we helped develop the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which enshrines the responsibility of companies to actively protect basic freedoms. Today, this duty takes on an existential dimension: your business can have the best carbon-reduction target, but if you are not prepared to stand up for human rights and broader values, and to press governments to do so, it’s not enough. Climate action without human rights action is only half the job.

Third, it is still possible for Azerbaijan’s leaders to confound their critics. The government could set out a plan to pivot away from oil and gas. President Ilham Aliyev could initiate a program of reforms to bring his country closer to international human rights standards, starting with heeding international calls to release Armenian political prisoners who are currently being illegally detained, the most well-known being prominent businessman and humanitarian Ruben Vardanyan. President Aliyev would earn the respect and goodwill of the international community, and help Azerbaijan gain greater status on the world stage, a goal it is desperate to reach.

No government, not even the one in Baku, is immune to the influence of a united international community, or to businesses and investors prepared to take a stand. Our test now is to use this leverage effectively, to defend human freedom and keep our international climate effort on track.

Article by Paul Polman for Reuters

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