How a disagreement over human rights language almost derailed the climate change treaty.

Before world leaders finally signed the hugely important, comprehensive agreement on ending climate change at the COP21 conference in Paris, there was an unusual dispute.

It was a small thing, but one that threatened to derail the negotiations and had seemingly little to do with the environment.



Climate change activists demonstrate at the COP21 conference in Paris. Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images.

Three countries requested that language about human rights and gender equality be removed from the operative part of the agreement before they signed.

Even weirder was the combination of countries making that request: Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Norway. Norway was ranked the second-most gender-equal country in the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, while the United States came in at #28. Saudi Arabia ranked near the bottom, at 134th.

According to Human Rights Watch, an early draft of the COP21 agreement included a commitment for countries to respect both human rights and gender equality as part of their plans to end climate change.

By Dec. 12, which was intended to be the last day of COP21, these three countries voiced their opposition to including that language in Article 2, which is the part of the agreement which states its purpose.

While only three countries spoke out explicitly against including human rights language in Article 2, others — including various European Union countries — did so by not taking a public position, said Katharina Rall, research fellow at Human Rights Watch.

"I think sometimes silence on an issue like this can also be interpreted by others, and has been interpreted by others, as opposition," Rall told Upworthy.

The language matters because protecting human rights as part of addressing climate change is hugely important.

According to the Huffington Post's Keith Peterman, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, speaking at a COP21 press briefing, asserted everyone's right to life, food, clean water, sanitation, and health.

A changing climate directly inhibits access to these basic human rights.

As Negendra Kumar Kumal, a representative of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, told the Huffington Post, despite the fact that her tribe is "not the main contributor to emissions ... we are experiencing unpredictable weather [including] changing snowfall and rain patterns."

Indigenous activists demonstrated at the COP21 conference in Paris. Photo by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images.

A changing climate also affects women disproportionately, especially in developing nations.

"If you undermine poor livelihoods, who has to pick up the pieces? Who has to put food on the table? Who has to go further in drought for firewood?" former Irish President Mary Robinson pointed out in an interview with Democracy Now.


Representatives of indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon at COP21. Photo by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images.

In the end, a compromise was reached. The disputed language is in the preamble.

Instead of including the language about human rights and gender equality in Article 2, it was kept in the preamble of the final agreement, with indigenous rights, women's rights, and the rights of other vulnerable groups being mentioned specifically.

And on Dec. 13, the historic agreement was signed.

In the final version, the preamble recognizes countries' legal obligations to their citizens based on human rights law, which is important when it comes to addressing climate change. That's a really good thing.

But not everyone is thrilled by the compromise. Including the language in the preamble instead of in the actual body of the agreement weakens it.

"It's more difficult to make an argument that there is an obligation to implement the preamble as such, without reference to any other article," Rall said.

Still, Rall clarified, because the whole agreement is a "binding international treaty," the preamble still has "legal meaning."

Guaranteeing human rights shouldn't be so controversial.

Why do international agreements concerning basic human rights need so much negotiation? And, most frustrating of all, when we're this close to a binding, universal agreement on climate change, why hold up this progress on something that should be as uncontroversial as human rights and equality for all?

"It's not enough to just write it into the preamble, and say: 'OK, now we're done with this. We've dealt with this question,'" cautioned Rall. She says that various indigenous groups were unhappy with the ultimate result.

Still, she's optimistic. She hopes these groups are able to follow up on the agreement in their own countries, as well as globally.

The least we can do is help apply that pressure.

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