‘Paris Agreement a Human Rights Treaty’: The Supreme Court of Brazil’s Watershed Ruling

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The Paris Agreement is the first global environmental agreement to recognize human rights as an integral part of its framework. Although the Paris Agreement is not a human rights treaty in the true sense, it makes an essential contribution to addressing climate change by considering human rights.

“Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”

The Paris Agreement

The recent Brazilian Supreme Court ruling is one example that states that climate change and human rights go hand-in-hand. Brazil’s supreme court ruled the Paris Agreement as a human rights treaty, which directly contradicts Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s climate policy. Thus the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil became the first in the world to declare such a ruling.

Ipanema beach of the Atlantic Ocean in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
As per studies, the rising sea level could submerge Rio by 2100.

Role of the Paris Agreement in Climate Change Mitigation

The most threatening challenge of the 21st century is nothing but climate change. The international community cannot ignore the fact that climate change is affecting lives, communities, countries and national economies across the globe. For this reason, the nations came forward to form the Paris agreement.

The climate change mitigation icon

The Paris agreement, or the Paris Climate Accords, formally recognized the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius) compared to the pre-industrial levels. This landmark agreement is a legally binding international treaty adopted by over 180 countries at COP21 in Paris on 12 December 2015. The agreement officially came into force on 4 December 2016. During the negotiations of the Paris Accords, there was disagreement between the parties over the adoption of human rights as an integral part of its framework. However, finally, the parties added human rights to the preamble.

One would think climate change is principally about environmental issues affecting biodiversity. However, looking deeply, it affects people in all dimensions. The obligation to protect human rights is a collective responsibility of individuals, states, and the private sector. The Paris Agreement is framed in this direction to reduce global warming.

“Human-induced climate change is the biggest harm to human rights, fundamentally the right to life.”

Brazilian Supreme Court on Paris Agreement

Under its scrutiny, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a ruling on the Climate Litigation Case (ADPF 708). The federal court, in this ruling, recognized the Paris Agreement as a human rights treaty that must prevail over national laws. This also means that any laws of the Brazilian government that contradict the Paris Agreement are invalid, and any violation of this ruling violates the country’s Constitution and human rights.

Who Filed the Climate Litigation, and What Happened?

The four political parties of Brazil (The Worker’s party, Socialism and Liberty party, Brazilian Socialist party and Sustainability Network) filed the case PSB et al. v. Brazil (on Climate Fund) in June 2020. The political parties claimed that the Brazilian government had not taken proper measures to allocate and use funds from the Brazilian Climate Fund since 2019. The fund was initially set up in 2009. In response, the government argued that the Climate Fund was not protected constitutionally; thus, the Supreme Court’s interference would violate the country’s separation of powers. 

Supreme Federal Court of Brazil

Further, Supreme Court ruled against the government that “Treaties on environmental law are a type of human rights treaty and, for that reason, enjoy supranational status. Therefore there is no legally valid option to simply omit to combat climate change.” Hence it can be derived from this ruling that the Paris Agreement supersedes national law, and thus the violation of this ruling is considered a threat or violation of human rights. 

Climate Policy of Jair Bolsonaro

The former army captain and the far-right congressman are openly hostile to fighting against global warming. During his political campaign, Bolsonaro promised to reboot Brazil’s economy. After Bolsonaro took office, while weighing the political and economic costs and gains from climate protection, he decided that exiting the Paris Agreement would provide greater scope to reboot Brazil’s economy. The leader also said that “Brazil does not owe the world anything when it comes to environmental protection.” Therefore he received harsh criticism from environmental groups and the general public.

Demonstrators in the Act for the Earth protest against President Bolsonaro’s environmental policies
Image courtesy-Reuters

The critics pointed out Brazil’s environmental policy under Bolsonaro scaled down its deterrent measures. If one looks at the statistics, a Brazilian agency reported that deforestation increased by 39%, and the running fires increased by 84% compared to Brazil before Bolsonaro took office. 

Observations of the Supreme Court on Climate Change

Supreme Court, after proper observations, recognized the federal government’s lack of effort to allocate resources of the climate funds towards climate change mitigation. Under its ruling, the Federal Court ordered the government not to neglect the climate fund again and take proper steps to allocate it. Thus the withholding of climate funds is prohibited.

A deforested plot of the Amazon rainforest in Manaus, Brazil
Image courtesy-Reuters

The court also observed that the government’s inaction could not only be seen in the context of the Brazilian environment but also indicates that Brazil is moving in the opposite direction of international commitments and climate change mitigation. Therefore affecting the life, food, economy and health of the Brazilians.

International Implications of the Ruling

The ruling stands significant for helping more climate policies to be implemented adequately based on human rights. However, it does not end there. The ruling in ADPF 708 (climate litigation case) also creates a more significant impact outside of Brazil. It acted as precedence for the nations to consider human rights while framing climate policies. It also indicates that human rights should be a significant consideration while framing any international treaty.

Climate change has become the driver of displacement in Africa rather than wars. Its high time that nations and organizations worldwide take an interdisciplinary approach toward climate change and human rights

The decision broadened the climate litigation landscape in Brazil and shed light on what can be the possible ruling on other litigations awaiting in the federal court. The other climate cases include the one who is arguing for the prevention and deforestation in Amazon, and the other one argues the inaction of the government to allocate the Amazon fund. Both the cases grab the attention to protect the Amazon rainforests, which provide 20% of the world’s oxygen.

An aerial view of the Amazon rainforests

When one analyses the entire Supreme Court ruling, it could also act as precedence for not only ruling against the government’s climate inaction, but the private players could also be taken into the picture. Private players across the globe have a more significant role in increasing global warming. In this light, Brazil’s case became significant when the Supreme court took charge and reaffirmed the need to ensure proper funds and resource allocation for climate protection. 


An interdisciplinary approach to climate change and human rights is currently prevalent on various grounds. For instance, the climate change-induced displacement in Africa is skyrocketing. In the under-developed nations of the African continent, the governments fail to provide basic human rights to their citizens who become homeless and are displaced internally and externally to survive the constant droughts. 

Thus, to reiterate, the Brazilian Supreme Court’s ruling is a milestone with a long way to go. It not only highlighted the importance of climate protection through the allocation of funds but also made it supranational, thus, transforming the Paris Agreement beyond the national laws.


About the Author

Navya Chandrika

Navya has a keen interest in geopolitics, pursuing her master’s degree in International Relations from Pondicherry University; she has a penchant for research and looks forward to exploring domains like foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security, public policy, governance and climate change. She likes to engage in public discourses actively and is keen on collaborating with individuals and institutions of novel and diverse ideas. Navya believes in the ability of academic research to empower public opinion.

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