There can be no meaningful solution to the global climate and ecological crisis without addressing systemic racism, and particularly the historic and contemporary racial legacies of colonialism and slavery, a UN human rights expert warned.

“Climate justice seeks historical accountability from nations and entities responsible for climate change and calls for a radical transformation of the contemporary systems that shape the relationship between humans and the rest of the planet. The status quo is that global and national systems distribute the suffering associated with the global ecological crisis on a racially discriminatory basis,” said Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in her report to the General Assembly.

“The ongoing destruction of our planet affects everyone. But what experts also make clear is that race, ethnicity and national origin continue to result in the unjust enrichment of some, and the utter exploitation, abuse and even death of others on account of the discrimination at the core of environmental and climate injustice.”

The UN expert said that “global ‘sacrifice zones’ – regions rendered dangerous and even uninhabitable due to environmental degradation – are in effect, ‘racial and ethnic sacrifice zones’.” It is the peoples and territories who have been subject to the worst forms of historical and contemporary racial and ethnic subordination that are the primary inhabitants of these sacrifice zones. These are the same peoples most affected by climate-induced migration, and who are confronting, in the case of Small Island Developing States, impending disappearance of their entire territories.

“The nations least capable of mitigating and responding to ecological crisis have been rendered so both by histories of colonial domination, and by externally imposed neoliberal and other economic policies in the postcolonial era,” Achiume said.

In her report, the Special Rapporteur documented the racist colonial foundations of the ecological crisis, transnational environmental racism, and climate injustice, as well as racially discriminatory environmental and climate-related human rights violations. Among her findings is that existing international frameworks to address ecological crisis perversely entrench racial injustice.

“The predominant global responses to environmental and climatic crises are characterised by the same forms of systemic racism that shape vulnerability to the effects of ecological catastrophe. The perspectives and interests of racially and ethnically marginalized groups are structurally undermined in global policy-making, and it remains to be seen whether COP27 will mark a significant shift in this regard. A racial justice approach is both urgent and necessary for developing initiatives and responses to the global ecological crisis, and yet has been entirely absent,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur urged Member States and stakeholders within the UN environmental and climate governance system to stop racially discriminatory human rights violations relating to climate and the environment, and systematically hold the transnational corporations accountable for environmental racism and climate injustice. Reparations for historical and contemporary environmental and climate harms rooted in historic injustice must also be prioritised.

The Special Rapporteur recommended meaningful participation of racially, ethnically and nationally marginalised persons and peoples in global and national climate governance, including women, gender-diverse persons, persons with disabilities, refugees, migrants and stateless persons.

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• Advocacy
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• ESC rights
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• Globalization, negative impacts
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