Climate justice

10 October 2009 | News story

Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Maldives, H.E. Dr Ahmed Shaheed believes it is time for the world to address the human rights implications of climate change.

It is now well established that climate change has deep negative implications for the full enjoyment of human rights. From new health risks to mass migration, from threatened food and water supplies to the disappearance of livelihoods and cultures, global warming undermines a broad suite of internationally-protected human rights.

Taking its lead from the 2005 Inuit Case against the US and the 2007 Male' Small Island States Declaration, the United Nations Human Rights Council recently adopted two Resolutions which state that global warming "poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights."

The formal recognition of the relationship between human rights and climate change is extremely important for both areas of policy.

For climate change policy, it demonstrates that climate change has real and measurable human impacts and helps place these in a framework of responsibility, accountability and justice. In particular, a human rights approach helps to highlight the deep injustice of a situation whereby the poor, vulnerable and powerless in some parts of the world pay unacceptable costs for the pursuit of wealth in more privileged parts.

For human rights policy, the implications of linking the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms with climate change harm are perhaps even more profound.

As many developed countries have argued, it is almost impossible to claim that climate change violates the human rights of people in vulnerable countries. This is because it is legally extremely difficult to connect specific harm in one country (e.g. someone's house falling into the sea in theMaldives) with a specific act in another part of the world (e.g. the decision of an American factory to increase output and thereby emissions).

Such legal subtleties are unacceptable to the Inuit of North America, or the people of theMaldives, theMarshall Islands,Tuvalu and Vanuatu who risk losing their entire homeland and with it their entire culture. Can we tell them that their human rights have not been violated because it is difficult to apportion responsibility? If we have to, it is surely because the law is wrong and not our instincts of equity and justice.

It is perhaps through highlighting the inadequacy of existing international human rights law in the context of the modern, globalized world that the greatest long-term significance of linking human rights and climate change will be found. So how should the world respond to this inadequacy?

First, by confirming that climate change has significant implications for human rights, the Human Rights Council has indirectly drawn attention to a major gap in the international human rights conventions-the lack of an explicit right to a safe and secure environment. Climate change itself does not directly affect human rights. Rather, global warming causes environmental change which in turn affects human rights. Thus, to properly protect human rights-all of which depend on a safe and secure environment-the international community should consider the merits of declaring 'environmental rights' at the international level.

Such a move would have major implications for government policy and accountability and for this reason the idea is controversial. But perhaps climate change, one of the ultimate environmental manifestations of globalization, calls for a renewed focus on the gap between international human rights policy and international environmental policy.

However, the universal declaration of a right to an environment of a certain quality, although helpful in dealing with climate change, would not be enough in itself. It could help individuals hold their governments accountable for environmental degradation but is unlikely to be much help in, say, the case of the Maldives, where responsibility lies beyond the State's borders. For someone in the Maldives to prove that his or her rights have been violated as a result of climate change and to hold those responsible accountable would require a wholesale reconfiguration of international human rights law as it is now understood-essentially, a contract between a State and its citizens. As the International Council on Human Rights Policy has noted,
"more than most other issues, climate change throws into relief the inadequacies of the international justice system, given the scale and intimacy of global interdependence that drives the problem and must also drive its solutions."

The Maldives, like all other vulnerable countries, hopes that talk of judicial frameworks, accountability and redress, and human rights violations will become unnecessary as of December when world leaders meet to agree a new post-Kyoto global climate change accord.We hope that the agreement they reach will halt dangerous anthropogenic climate change in its tracks and by doing so, deliver climate justice to the world's poor and vulnerable. However, such an outcome seems unlikely. It is therefore important for those of us who care about the environment and about social justice to consider new approaches such as the ones previously suggested. These approaches may not succeed on their own, but if they generate greater urgency, empower the vulnerable or voiceless and create a sense of accountability among decision makers then they are certainly worth pursuing.