With the UN Climate Conference (COP 27) quickly approaching, there is growing awareness and discomfort with Egypt’s role as the host and incoming presidency of the conference. There are mounting fears that Egypt is using COP 27 to greenwash its infamous record on human rights alongside its ongoing repression of citizens. This raises important questions: Is the international community aiding Egypt’s government in deflecting attention from the atrocious state of human rights in the country? Will this lead to ethical and reputational risks for the UN climate process and threaten global progress on climate change? And finally, will the climate movement take a stand for human rights in Egypt?
Greenwashing repression: COP 27 and human rights in Egypt
With COP 27 taking place in Sharm El Sheikh this November, there are mounting concerns that the most important global process to tackle climate change may inadvertently contribute to greenwashing Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record and conditions.
Since the term was conceived in 1986, greenwashing was commonly used to describe the practice of promoting environmentally-friendly practices to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or unsustainable activities. Greenwashing may now be evolving to include non-corporate entities, such as national governments, championing environmental policy processes to deflect attention from their human rights record.
A closer look at the hosts of Conferences of Parties (COPs) for the UN’s environmental conventions on climate change and biodiversity shines light on countries with infamous records on human rights assuming the presidency of UN COPs. China, Egypt, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have either assumed the presidency of these COPs or are scheduled to do so by 2023.
Since the uprisings of 2011, Egypt became notorious for its ongoing repression of civil society and activists. With tens of thousands of political prisoners detained under horrendous conditions, peaceful protests effectively criminalized, and a civil society crippled by repressive regulations, the Egyptian regime has solidified its reputation internationally as a flagrant violator of human rights.
In turn, there are mounting concerns that policymakers, climate scientists, and civil society organizations partaking in COP 27 may contribute to legitimizing the ongoing suffering of Egypt’s political prisoners, amounting to ethical and reputational risks to global climate action. Such concerns have, in recent months, come to the spotlight with Egypt’s declaration that the government would designate a space for COP-related protests—a somewhat comical gesture that captures the bleak state of civic participation in Egypt.
Climate change, human rights, and environmental justice
The global climate movement has spent much of the last decade reframing climate change as a social issue as opposed to a siloed “environmental” issue. There is growing emphasis on the vast impacts that climate change will have on people, nature, and economies around the world, especially among vulnerable communities in the Global South.
Environmental collapse directly and indirectly impacts food and water security, public health and safety, community-building and peacekeeping, as well as political and economic stability. As global temperatures continue to rise, people all around the world face increasing risks of famine, drought, disease, extreme weather events, and loss of livelihoods. Climate justice begins by recognizing that environmental collapse affects key people in very different ways, and that the “the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.” These impacts can also worsen social conditions affecting marginalized groups, such as women and girls, indigenous peoples, minorities, and lower-income communities, with fewer resources to respond and adapt to these impacts.
Through the UN climate process, the international community has increasingly recognized the importance of upholding human rights in the fight against climate change. One of the key declarations from the previous Climate COP, the Glasgow Declaration, emphasized “the importance of human rights and collaboration across sectors and all parts of society to deliver effective climate action and a just transition.”
Rights-based approaches to climate action place people’s rights and well-being at the center of environmental and sustainable development agendas. This goes beyond the impact of climate change on people’s rights, livelihoods, and well-being. These approaches aim to ensure the fair, equitable, and just participation of a wide range of individuals and communities in all aspects of decision-making, from defining the impacts of climate change to deciding on appropriate actions and solutions to societal challenges.
Egypt’s adoption, however, of rights-based approaches in key decision-making processes has been questionable to say the least. In recent years, numerous multibillion dollar megaprojects were initiated with minimal stakeholder engagement, public consultation, or environmental due diligence. Examples from 2022 alone include massive construction works in the St. Catherine National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site (ironically a short distance from COP 27’s venue), and violent evictions of local communities to build skyscrapers, marinas, and helipads on the Nile River.
COP 27 is viewed by Egypt as an opportunity to secure global finance for large scale climate action in lower and middle-income countries. This financing should ultimately be contingent on ensuring rights-based approaches to planning and implementing such projects, especially in countries, like Egypt, with a very weak track record on human rights and civic engagement in key decision-making processes.
Climate action: A problematic past and present
The international community’s efforts in tackling climate change, especially through UN processes, have come under increasing criticism for continuing to perpetuate systemic racism and injustices against the Global South. International climate policy continues to be dominated by Western governments—and increasingly corporations—promoting actions and policies that may shift attention and responsibility away from their countries, while pointing the finger to the Global South, often citing population growth and lack of awareness as hindering global progress on climate.
One emerging field of climate action is “nature-based solutions,” or “working with nature” to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change. For example, natural habitats can be conserved or restored to protect against flooding: mangroves, coral reefs, and coastal sand dunes can provide protection from seasonal storms and rising sea levels, while restoring vegetation and soils on slopes and hillsides can capture more water and stabilize the ground to reduce flooding and landslides.
However, nature-based solutions can become more contentious when they involve setting aside large areas of land and sea to help cool the planet—most of these areas are located in the Global South. In turn, many indigenous peoples and local communities continue to express fears that their rights are threatened by current and proposed conservation measures. Historically, these measures often restricted communities’ rights over their lands and resources.
This has increased global momentum to “decolonize” the climate movement, increase the representation of indigenous peoples and local communities at international meetings, and ensure that human rights are at the foundation of climate action. This also includes demands to integrate and address gender considerations in climate decision-making: women and girls are disproportionately impacted not only by climate change but also by poorly planned and managed climate action.
Tackling climate change is inevitably an environmental justice issue, and there is no environmental justice without social justice. Little progress can be made to achieve environmental justice through the UN climate process when the host of COP 27 continues to publicly and violently silence, imprison, torture, and kill its citizens, as well as exclude them from key decision-making around their livelihoods. These conferences aim to facilitate free and constructive debates around sensitive and urgent issues connecting development with social and environmental justice. COP 27 risks failing to achieve this as long as Egypt’s prisons are filled with activists, journalists, lawyers, and other prisoners of conscience.
Calls for action: Support human rights in Egypt
While COP 27 risks greenwashing the ongoing repression of Egyptians, it also has the potential to improve the situation of human rights in Egypt ahead of the conference in November, namely securing the release of political prisoners and lessen restrictions on civil society. However, this will only be possible with sufficient public pressure from the international community, especially the global climate movement.
While there has been much criticism of Egypt’s presidency of COP 27, calls from within Egypt or by Egyptians abroad to boycott the conference in Sharm El Sheikh have been sparse. Some human rights groups are leveraging COP 27 as an opportunity to raise the profile of human rights abuses and perhaps to alleviate the suffering of prisoners and civil society organizations.
If different factions of the global climate movement—governments, grassroots organizations, international NGOs, and private sector representatives—want to take part in COP 27 without contributing to greenwashing of repression in Egypt, they must publicly engage in raising the profile of human rights abuses. They should call for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience and continue to apply significant pressure on the Egyptian government as well as its political allies in high-income countries.
Until the human rights situation in Egypt sees drastic improvements ahead of November’s conference, COP 27 risks losing all credibility in proving its commitment to the well-being of vulnerable communities around the world. Human rights and environmental justice are inextricably connected, and if the global climate movement does not properly mobilize support for human rights in Egypt, the ethical and reputational consequences will be drastic, threatening the success of local-to-global climate action in the Global South going forward.