Climate crisis should take diplomatic priority even where there may be fraught geopolitical tensions over challenging issues such as human rights, former UN Secretary-General suggests

World leaders should not allow wider geopolitical tensions over alleged human rights violations to derail efforts to combat the climate crisis, according to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who has argued “we must put [out] the fire first, then let’s talk about human rights”.

In a new podcast interview released last night, the South Korean politician and diplomat – who led the UN from 2007 to 2016 – spoke about the challenge of ensuring international cooperation on climate action, while simultaneously navigating various other geopolitical tensions.

Speaking on the latest episode of climate podcast Cleaning Up – which is hosted by clean tech entrepreneur Michael Liebreich – Ban suggested that while world leaders should continue to push for improvements to human rights, “the most urgent issues we have to tackle [is] this climate issue” and as such there are times when “we should not mix climate with human rights”.

Such issues are likely to become increasingly fraught in the coming year and beyond, as the need for multilateral cooperation to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep temperature increases ‘well below 2C’ rub up against escalating political differences between Western powers and China, Russia, and others that are likely to pose significant headaches for climate diplomats worldwide.

In particular, there are growing concerns in the West over alleged systematic human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim population in China – particularly in Xinjiang, a province which sits at the heart of the global solar industry, where there have been allegations of forced labour being used to manufacture solar cells.

Just before Christmas, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law that requires US firms to disclose their dealings with Xinjiang in a bid to guard against products linked to forced labour in the region from entering the US. The controversial law has angered some players in the region, but recent reports also suggest some Chinese solar firms are gradually shifting their production elsewhere in response to growing international scrutiny.

The issue is set to be pushed further up the global political agenda in the coming weeks with the US, UK, Canada, and Australia having all announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing in protest at the China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority and the suppression of democratic protests and freedoms in Hong Kong.

In his other role as chairman of the Ethics Commission of International Olympic Committee (IOC), Ban said it was “mandatory” for him to attend the upcoming Winter Olympics, but argued that “we should not mix sports with politics, and we should not mix climate with human rights”.

The veteran diplomat also appeared to suggest that tackling the climate crisis should be the top diplomatic priority as “otherwise you cannot save humans”. He stressed that he had frequently been vocal in “criticising those countries who do not support human rights”, but that “at this time we have to put [out the] fire first”.

Asked by Liebreich whether the need tackle egregious human rights abuses should take priority over urgent, short term climate action requirements, Ban insisted world leaders had to apply their own judgement, but reiterated that climate change is the “most urgent” issue the world faces.

“Now, I’m not saying this because I’m trying to support what China is doing – I’m just saying this one out of my own experiences or wisdom: I think we need to have a wisdom in addressing all political, economic or global challenges issues or human rights issues,” Ban said. “There is something which needs to be done first, then we can do it later. Where there is a fire, you must put [out] the fire first and save, otherwise you cannot save humans…”

“We had [the] UN Human Rights Council where we can address this one but as I said earlier, climate change does not care where you are coming from,” Ban continued. “We have only one planet Earth, and we have only one life, so we have to take urgent action… Therefore I’m urging political leaders: use your wisdom first, and think about the future of humanity and our planet Earth. Let’s work on that first, then let’s talk about human rights.”

Later in the conversation, Ban added: “We will continue to argue against China to improve the human rights, but at the same time, we have to address the most urgent issues – we have to tackle this climate issue.”

Diplomatic efforts to decouple rows over human rights from the need for multilateral co-operation on climate were prominent at last autumn’s COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, where the US and China signed the bilateral ‘Glasgow Declaration’, which saw the world’s two biggest emitters commit to undertaking “enhanced climate actions” that raise ambitions in the current decade in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The move was widely viewed as an attempt to ‘silo’ climate action as separate from the many other issues where the two superpowers remain at loggerheads, but with growing concerns in the West over China’s human rights record, maintaining the delicate balancing act is likely to prove highly challenging.

Liebreich, who also founded BloombergNEF and was a former Olympic skier, told BusinessGreen he took a different view to his latest podcast guest, voicing his support for the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics and arguing that both human rights issues and the climate crisis could and should be dealt with at the same time.

Liebriech said he thought the issue would become increasingly prominent in 2022 and beyond, but that he was “surprised by the clarity with which Ban put climate action before human rights” in their podcast conversation, adding that “I see it differently myself”.

“When it comes to China, I personally put a huge weight on human rights, and I’d like to see that very much prioritised,” he said. “And by the way, that doesn’t absolve the UK or the US from our own human rights issues around Black Lives Matter or all the other discriminations that are rife. It just means that when you see a situation as stark as that facing the Uyghurs or the situation in Hong Kong, I think it’s a naivety born of misunderstanding what a climate solution looks like, that gets certain people to want to turn a blind eye.”

Liebriech argued it was possible to confront human rights challenges without derailing action on climate, and that failing to do so risked sidelining other human rights issues that could emerge elsewhere as the net zero transition takes hold, such as emerging concerns over the environmental and labour impacts of growing global demand from booming clean tech industries for key metals and minerals.

“I think that if you want to trade off freedom and democracy against climate action, there’s a very good chance you’ll end up with neither,” Liebriech argued. “It is unbelievably complex, but we do have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

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