Clarifying business responsibility to respect the human right to a healthy ocean

Hub research on the relevance of the human right to a healthy environment to contribute to the protection of marine biodiversity and ocean health has increasingly contributed to discussions on business responsibility to respect human rights. In November-December 2023, we contributed to a conference of the Network of African Human Rights Institutes and a call for evidence in this connection by the UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change. We also participated in an academic conference on this topic, and provided advice to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which has just published a draft guidance on business due diligence and the environment, on which comments are welcome until 15 January 2024. 

Panel members, comprising Sulley in extreme right. Next to him is officer of Tanzanian National Human Rights Institution (i.e., woman in jacket). The male person in the middle is Chairperson of The Gambia National Human Rights Commission while the next to him is the Director of Human Rights at the Commission on Human Rights & Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Ghana. At the extreme left end is UNP representative.
photo: Biennial NANHRI Conference in Accra, Ghana

Conference of the Network of African Human rights Institutions 

The Network of African Human rights Institutions invited the One Ocean Hub to contribute to its 14 Biennial Conference on “Nurturing Responsible Business Conduct and Respect for Human Rights in Africa” (18-20 October 2023 in Accra, Ghana.) Dr Sulley Ibrahim, the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, presented empirical research findings of relevance to business in the context of the triple threat of climate change, marine litter and the depletion of fish stock due to overfishing and illicit fishing. The presentation also focused on issues related to women’s human rights arising from exclusionary statutory and customary fisheries governance practices. The Ghanaian national human rights institution offered to draw on Hub research to inform their comments on the draft UN treaty on business and human rights currently under negotiations. 

The panel comprised chairpersons of The Gambia and Tanzania national human rights institutions and a representative from the UNDP office in Ghana. The Gambian human rights institution highlighted how large-scale fish-processing factories have negative impacted on the human rights of fisherwomen, by purchasing landed fish, which Sulley considered an insight that may be relevant also for Ghana in the future.   

Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change  

Together with the Alana Institute, we responded to the call by the Special Rapporteur on climate change to give inputs to his forthcoming report on corporate accountability in the context of human rights and climate change, which will be presented to the 56th Session of the Human Rights Council in 2024. In our joint submission, we focused on the perspective of children’s rights about corporate accountability in the context of human rights and climate change. 

We underscored that business due diligence should fully integrates the respect of children’s human rights, by:

  • having an explicit policy on preventing, mitigating and remediating climate change-related impacts on children’s rights from their own activities, business relationships and supply chains; 
  • comprehensively assessing, on an ongoing basis, actual and potential adverse climate change-related impacts on children’s rights arising from their own activities, business relationships and supply chains on children’s human rights, including at the ocean-climate nexus
  • integrating the findings of these impact assessments into internal decision-making and taking appropriate actions, such as avoiding plastic pollution that diminishes the capacity of the ocean to contribute to climate mitigation, and unsustainable large-scale fishing practices; 
  • In instances where violations of children’s rights are identified, taking immediate steps to prevent further harm to children’s health and development and providing effective remedy in a timely and effective manner; 
  • tracking the effectiveness of their actions to ensure adequate responses to identified impacts on children’s human rights, and transparently communicating assessments, actions and results externally; and 
Sulley Ibrahim at the Biennial Conference of the Network of African Human rights
photo: Biennial NANHRI Conference in Accra, Ghana
  • establishing company-level grievance mechanisms that are accessible and transparent. 

 The joint submission also called on relevant UN bodies to: 

  • develop appropriate modalities to support children’ right to be heard on business responsibility to respect their rights in the context of climate change, including the ocean-climate nexus, so that the understanding of their best interests is shaped by children’s own views
  • apply the established mechanisms for monitoring and accountability to private sector activities led by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and grounded by a child-rights impact assessment, to track and evaluate potential direct and indirect impacts on the climate and on the realization of children’s rights; 
  • develop education materials to empower children to express their views on business responsibility to respect their rights; and 
  • develop/strengthen means to protect children environmental human rights defenders when they take action in relation to business responsibility in the climate change context, including at the ocean-climate nexus. 

Finally, our submission recalled how UN General Comment 26 on children’s rights and a healthy environment, clarifies that governments must: 

  • guarantee a swift reduction of emissions by businesses; 
  • require business to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for their actions in addressing both current and potential adverse impacts on children’s rights linked to climate change, from both their own production and consumption activities, as well as those associated with their value chains and global operations; 
  • facilitate access to effective remedies for violations of rights, including providing international assistance and cooperation for investigations and enforcement proceedings in other states; and 
  • develop national policies and laws on just transitions so as to ensure the protection of children’s human rights, including carefully regulating and monitoring business-led technological approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation to ensure that these are effective measures that do not negatively impact on biodiversity and respect children’s human rights. 

Academic Conference on Corporate Environmental Responsibility 

On 5 December 2023, the University of Lisbon School of Law organised a hybrid conference to discuss issues relating to international environmental accountability, corporate due diligence and climate litigation, corporate governance and reporting, as well as financial law and sustainable finance.  

Hub Director Elisa Morgera was invited to speak on the development of challenges of international standards on corporate environmental accountability. She reflected on: 

  • the early development of international standards on corporate environmental accountability, before international human rights became the prevalent frame in international standard-setting efforts; 
  • the overlap in the content of international standards on corporate environmental accountability, with growing attention to substantive standards on climate change and biodiversity;  
  • the content of business responsibility to respect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and the relevance of the Convention on Biological Diversity in this connection; and 

In the same session, Dr Chiara Macchi, from Wageningen University, delivered an insightful presentation on corporate environmental due diligence under international law, noting that: 

  • relevant international policy frameworks on sustainability/climate change consider the private sector within a logic of partnership, not of responsibility; 

In the ensuing discussions, panellists and participants reflected on the role of academic researchers in developing legal arguments and contributing to ongoing inter-governmental negotiations on business and human rights. 


Elisa Morgera is working on a new academic paper on business responsibility to respect the human right to a healthy environment, including at the ocean-climate nexus, that will be published in the Research Handbook on Sustainability and Corporate Accountability (Edward Elgar) in 2024. Sulley Ibrahim, Elisa Morgera and other Hub researchers will explore further collaboration with the Network of African Human rights Institutions in this area in 2024.