“Offensive struggle for economic and social rights”

What role do human rights play in times of climate crisis? The lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck on similarities, elite allegations and the limits of legal work.

Interview: Jakob Nehls

Your latest book is entitled “The Concrete Utopia of Human Rights”. What do you mean with that?

Since December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has declared in the first sentence: “All people are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. This is a utopian state that needs to be created – because that all people are free and equal was neither true in 1948 nor is it true today. But in contrast to other utopias, this one was adopted by the world community and forms the normative basis of the human rights system that has been developed since then.

More than 70 years later, the world is more like a concrete dystopia, also and especially with a view to the climate crisis. Why should we still rely on human rights?

The state of the world is not due to the failure of human rights. Many factors are responsible for this, and without human rights it would look even worse. These have a concrete utopian potential because the conventions, the social pact and the civil pact made many rights justiciable. So we have a political-legal lever in the here and now to oblige actors to participate in the utopia. However, this is not automatic; rather, human rights must be fought for over and over again.

What role does the climate play in this utopia?

Human rights work very often involves important and necessary defensive struggles. Take Amnesty, the organization was founded in 1961 to defend the right to physical integrity against the state. Conversely, those who are not tortured are not automatically free and equal in dignity and rights. That is why the campaign for human rights is more than just a defense fight, it should also be an offensive fight for economic and social rights. In order to make this a reality for everyone everywhere, structures have to be changed, and that’s where we can get to the climate quickly. The alleged success of the current world economic system is based on the fact that people have been exploited for several centuries and nature was viewed as a means of disposal. And because damage to nature usually goes hand in hand with the violation of human rights, the struggles for nature and the climate as well as for human rights belong together.

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Let’s take a look at the human rights struggles in courts. What is the significance of so-called climate action?

The climate lawsuits are a new generation of collective lawsuits, some are calling them “strategic” lawsuits. This includes, for example, the complaint by Greta Thunberg and others to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child or the lawsuit on the German Climate Protection Act before the Federal Constitutional Court, as well as lawsuits against companies such as Shell or RWE. But similar lawsuits were filed many years ago. Even if the legal objectives were different, it was often about the preservation or reclamation of natural habitats. For example, when I speak to African lawyers – I deliberately do not say human rights lawyers – they shrug their shoulders and say: We do what needs to be done for our people, and we use the human rights label and the climate protection label. The label is not that important.

An exciting approach, because it makes it clear that in many regions of the world there have been decades of experience with all kinds of environmental and climate-related lawsuits, for example against the use of toxic pesticides in agriculture, against environmentally harmful mines and other major projects. Or in Germany the lawsuits against nuclear power plants.

To what extent are the earlier cases relevant to the new wave of lawsuits?

One can learn from past arguments that legal decisions alone will not heal the world. At best, the law poses necessary and important questions, for example: Does the juridification of politics serve the general public in the long term? Have we gained anything from the fact that environmental and human rights issues are decided by judges? That does not mean that it is wrong to appeal to the Federal Constitutional Court, as happened in the spring of this year, to set limits for the executive with an exclamation mark. But that will not help us much in implementing climate protection, because we are on a political level where we have to mobilize forces. The interplay between law and politics must therefore be redefined time and again depending on the situation.

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Following the ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, the federal government improved the Climate Protection Act. According to activists and experts, however, it is still insufficient. Are there the limits of legal human rights work here?

The verdict on the Climate Protection Act is nice, and those involved can pat each other on the back. But the day after you have to go straight back into the political arena, and that shows what is lacking: awareness among the parties and among large parts of the population. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of brakes from business and trade who fear that their interests will be threatened.

In your book you demand that the human rights movement should not be a pure middle class elite project. The climate movement is also being accused of being too white, too bourgeois, too homogeneous. How can human rights and climate activism become more diverse?

By repeatedly bringing the classic social question into play and incorporating it into the analyzes and strategies. Climate protection activists already mention this by saying: climate justice is social justice. In order to avoid paternalistic tendencies in the classic environmental movement, I would also add: Climate justice is global social justice. In addition to the social question, other conditions of oppression are important. These are not incidental contradictions, but topics that have to be addressed together as much as possible and reconciled with one another. Some right wing opinion leaders have an interest in making this stand out as a contradiction. The best way to maintain power is to split countermovements. This is happening at the moment to an extent that shakes me. We must not allow struggles for emancipation to be split up into isolated individual struggles and the right not to be discriminated against being played off against the social question or even against the climate question. It all belongs together.

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Wolfgang Kaleck is the founder and general secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights e. V. (ECCHR), which fights with legal means for the defense and realization of human rights. His book “The Concrete Utopia of Human Rights” was published in March 2021 (see also the review in Amnesty Journal 3/2021).

Jakob Nehls is involved in the Amnesty co-group Climate Crisis and Human Rights.

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