Not Just Environmental Change, Environmental Justice

How the 2024 Grimes Fellowship recipient fights for a more equitable future—and a cleaner planet
Natika Kantaria (MHR '24) in a room at the Geneva headquarters of the UN

"There is no environmental justice without human rights,” says Natika Kantaria (MHR ’24).  “ I believe this message, conveyed by civil society during COP28, speaks for itself.”

Kantaria is the recipient of the inaugural Sharon Grimes Human Rights Fellowship, an award that grants $1,000 to a Master of Human Rights student with a commitment to human rights and the environment. She is a Public Voices Fellow on Advancing the Rights of Women and a Fulbright Scholar. As a passionate human rights activist, Kantaria has extensive experience in human rights advocacy. She has worked on various advocacy campaigns through projects funded by the Council of Europe, European Union, USAID, SIDA, OSF, and NDI. 

In 2023, she traveled to Dubai for the 28th UN Conference of the Parties as a member of the University of Minnesota observer delegation. Her primary objective was to assess how and if members advocated for a human rights approach to climate issues during the COP28—specifically concerning climate financing and the establishment of the loss and damage fund, which is designed to assist countries that are disproportionately affected by climate change. The establishment of the fund emerged as one of the most contentious topics of the negotiations. Working with the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt, International Financial Obligations, and Human Rights, Kantaria also delved into the tools of fighting climate change such as debt cancellation and taxes, among others. 

Until now, Kantaria has been engaged in several climate change-related events organized by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the Institute on Environment, and the Law School. She is currently involved in different workshops about climate financing, where she gains varied perspectives and hears voices from the Global South. 

The Crucial Link Between Climate and Human Rights

The Sharon Grimes Fellowship supports the idea that the environment is inextricably linked to human rights, including the right to health, water, life, sanitation, food, culture, and basic enjoyment of all other human rights. As the globe warms at the fastest rate at any point in recorded history, the world faces the prospect of extreme weather conditions, health risks, poverty, species loss, disruptions to the global economy, and mass displacement. “Moreover,” Kantaria points out, “climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable and underrepresented communities, including women, children, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and others facing various social and economic challenges.” 

According to the OHCHR, those living in island states and developing nations are especially at risk of water scarcity, desertification, land degradation, and drought. Climate change also affects the habitability of land and the preservation of culture, impacting individuals’ cultural rights and right to self-determination—existential threats that small island nations like Tuvalu already face. This, Kantaria argues, is where human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation, accountability, and legality come into play. “Environmental activism cannot be understood separately from human rights,” she explains. Global inequalities that exist because of former colonial developed nations—the primary historical culprits of pollution—must also be considered.

While a human rights approach to environmental activism seems like the clear path ahead for some, challenges persist. According to Kantaria, one of these challenges is states avoiding human rights language and failing to reference various binding international legal instruments in discussions. “In my personal opinion, this is an attempt to somehow avoid the commitments that would come with the official acknowledgement of the direct linkages between human rights violations and international human rights law,” she says. In addition, failure to acknowledge the main historical polluters means that climate topics and discussions often disregard the voices and needs of the Global South, despite it being far more vulnerable to climate change than the Global North. 

Keeping Up the Fight

But Kantaria still continues to advance change, believing that human rights can pave the way for environmental justice. “Having human rights at the core of discussions and referencing international human rights instruments will make the battle against climate change more effective,” she says. Despite the shortcomings of the international community, Kantaria still maintains that the community plays a crucial role in combating climate change. Cooperation is key—and wealthier countries hold the greatest historical responsibility. If these countries are serious about their human rights commitments, she contends, they must work with the rest of the international community to ensure the right to remedy for countries who have suffered the severest loss and whose people are unable to enjoy their basic human rights. 

Kantaria appreciates the support of her work from the MHR program and the Grimes Fellowship, which encourages others to become more involved in human rights advocacy. “Receiving the Fellowship signifies my official commitment to actively continue engaging with the topic and contributing by addressing existing gaps and challenges wherever possible,” she says. “It’s both a responsibility and a sign of trust in me to be a genuine representative of the title of Fellow.” 

She attributes her strong passion for advocacy work to her family, and her grandmother in particular. Kantaria’s family members come from Abkhazia, an occupied region of Georgia. They hold status as Internally Displaced Persons, “which we did not intend to have,” she says, recounting the day when her family was evicted from their homes along with other Georgian families. Later, after enduring years of fear, isolation, and inhumane treatment from Russian peacekeeper soldiers, her grandmother crossed the border and stayed in another part of the country with family. In all those years, Kantaria says that her grandmother never once unpacked her bag from Abkhazia, believing that she had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice if there was ever a chance to return. 

The hope of return is what “kept her strong and powerful,” Kantaria recalls. “Despite the hardships she went through, she never stopped looking forward to better days. Having this as an example, I think I try to also contribute to the fight for those whose rights were undermined. Therefore, I myself do not have the right to be hopeless.” 

A Fairer and Cleaner Future

Kantaria’s profession is one of advocating for spaces where people may speak when they are not heard. Regarding her future plans, she says she will continue to fight for change and share the perspective of the indivisibility of climate justice and the enjoyment of human rights. She believes it is important for people to understand the interlinkages between human rights and the environment on a global scale and realize that climate change is not just a problem for the future, but a problem for today. 

As for the future of the greater globe, Kantaria voices optimism. “We see an increasing call for the use of human rights language and its linkages to international human rights law, which represents a rapid change. However, we have to acknowledge that the process takes time, while the impact of climate change devastates communities around the world today.” To her, it is important to acknowledge that focusing solely on local efforts in climate advocacy will not have a large impact. Activists must broaden their scope if they want to facilitate effective change. The international community must come together and respond promptly. Advocates like Kantaria play a crucial role in this endeavor, working to ensure a planet that not only sustains human life, but a planet that also fulfills human rights. 

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