By: Beatrice C. Tulagan

The Philippines Human Rights Commission is mounting an audacious challenge to the world’s fossil fuel energy producers, alleging that they are responsible for the increasing damage wrought on the country as tropical storms increase in intensity and fury.

The results of seven months of pathbreaking testimony in hearings in Manila, London and New York are to be released next June into whether climate change brought on by greenhouse gases from the world’s energy giants are endangering Filipinos’ right to life, food, water and sanitation.

Regarded as a trailblazer for future cases, legal experts, scientists, typhoon survivors and civil society and community representatives have taken the stand during 12 hearings by the human rights commission. The process is aimed at uncovering whether energy giants such as Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil should be held responsible for catastrophic climate change. 

“We recognize that there are significant anthropogenic causes behind climate change, such as the burning of fossil fuels,” said Commissioner Roberto Cadiz. “This results in stronger typhoons, longer droughts, melting icecaps and more — events that impact human rights.”

The investigation concluded a two-day hearing on December 11 and 12 with more testimony from human rights advocates and from the climate frontlines. Since the filing of the petition in 2015, multiple cases have been filed all over the world aiming to hold oil, gas and coal companies accountable, with global climate litigation quickly becoming the latest site of resistance in the fight towards climate justice.

“This investigation is becoming a depository of evidence on fossil fuel denial and deceit,” said Yeb Saño, Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia and a petitioner who also testified at the hearing. It was Sano who electrified the 19th United Nations Congress of Parties meeting in Warsaw in 2013 with a powerful, emotional speech on the damage caused by Tropical Storm Haiyan/Yolanda, which devastated much of the central Philippines in 2013 and took more than 7,000 lives.

“Thousands of pages of statements and evidence are now on the record, and the public will be able to see why we are facing worsening heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, and storms. More importantly, who are primarily responsible.”

Climate change as a human rights issue

The commission’s jurisdiction has been questioned, since the country’s constitution only allows the commission to investigate cases involving political and civil rights. The rights commission clarified, however, that the petition did allege these violations, as civil and political rights cannot be considered separately from economic, social and cultural rights, explaining that all human rights are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

“Climate change has become an existential threat. It’s life and death, and the right to life is the most basic civil right so it falls under our mandate”, argued Commissioner Cadiz.

The companies have formally boycotted the process, not responding to invitations sent out by the commission, although some did send their lawyers to observe the public hearings. In lieu of summons, the Commission issued invitations because they did not have enforcement jurisdiction or compulsory processes against the parties.

“Unlike courts governed by precedents, the challenge to National Human Rights Institutions is to test boundaries and create new paths” said Commissioner Cadiz. “Our challenge is to be able to see beyond legal technicalities and set the bar of human rights protection to higher standards.”

Experts testifying in the hearings have aimed to establish a connection between the activities of the fossil fuel industry and the harm Filipinos experienced and are experiencing, the corporations’ knowledge of it and their ability to prevent or reduce the harm. The witnesses have sought to confirm through climate science, attribution science and investigative reports that the industry has known about the possible impacts on society and the environment for decades.

Establishing the legal link

Carroll Muffet, President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, emphasized the mandate of businesses to observe due diligence in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, stressing corporate responsibility to actively “know and show” that they and their supply chain did not violate human rights is a pillar of the agreement. Any attempt to conceal or withhold information from the public, he said, constitutes a violation of the principles, and it can be argued, a violation of human rights.

In their closing statements, the petitioners reminded the body that the respondents have violated human rights through misleading business practices whose impacts they knew about for generations. It was raised during the hearings, for example, that the Carbon Majors were aware of the climate risks, the social and economic impacts associated with their businesses as early as 1954.

Multiple investigations outside of the inquiry have confirmed that the fossil fuel industry has been funding anti-climate science propaganda, spending nearly $16 million to fund skeptic groups and create confusion around the certainty of global warming.

“The Commission has firm ground to stand on for issuing recommendations that the respondent companies, including their directors and officers, meaningfully align business models with keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees,” according to one witness.

Leading the way towards climate justice

The official findings will be released after a consultative process evaluating the results involving professors, scientists and advocates who are working on the areas of human rights and climate change. The decision will contain recommendations for governments and the respondents. While the commission does not have the power to compel the corporations to pay damages, it can include a declaration of principle that certain parties must be held responsible, as well as the reason and the extent of their responsibility.

The Commission and the petitioners reiterate that their position has always been to allow the process to open up a space for global dialogue, recognizing the transboundary character of the issue alongside the unique vulnerability of the Filipinos from various sectors.

The hearings, for example, counted among its witnesses LGBTQIA community leader Arthur Golong, rice farmer Felix Pascua, and a young indigenous woman of the Aeta-Ambala Rica Cahilig, who all recounted the often-overlooked impacts of climate change on marginalized groups, such as on identity and cultural heritage.

“So much is at stake for the Philippines as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change,” said Desiree Llanos Dee, Climate Justice Campaigner for Greenpeace. “Climate justice is a moral imperative for us.”