Opinion piece: Climate Change is also a Human Rights Issue, by Professor Steven Freeland

Date: 10/12/2009

First published in 'The Age' on Thursday 10 December, 2009.

In the midst of the intense diplomatic discussions currently taking place in Copenhagen, as well as the ETS-related political turmoil that preceded it in Australia, it is perhaps important to consider some of the more significant implications of not making tangible progress towards an effective international regime to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is clear that the effects of climate change are impacting, and will continue to do so upon the lives of many people. Even though there may still be areas of disagreement among States, the scientific community and (some) politicians as to these precise effects, and the extent to which action should be taken to mitigate them, all agree that some form of legal regulation is necessary. This is even more important given the impact that climate change has on human security, human habitation and, ultimately, on the fundamental human rights of all individuals.

These considerations are particularly prescient given that today marks the anniversary of the adoption in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an event that is often regarded as the 'birth' of modern international human rights law.

The UDHR remains one of the most important documents ever created. It represented the first clear formal statement of the fundamental rights to which all human beings are entitled. The Guinness Book of Records describes it as the world's 'Most Translated Document'.

Despite differences of opinion that subsequently emerged between developed and developing countries about the precise scope and applicability of these rights, in 1976 two landmark treaties came into force, one dealing with civil and political rights and the other with economic, social and cultural rights. These formulated the rights articulated in the UDHR into legally binding obligations, to which all countries are required to comply.

Over the ensuing years, the international human rights standards have been applied not only to conflicts and the treatment of individuals by Governments, but also to activities in specific areas such as trade, international debt, immigration and refugees, employment and labour, development and the environment.

It is certainly true that in most, if not all of these areas, the report card is 'mixed' at best. States continue to protect their sovereignty and any perceived threats to their cultural and political integrity, and economic well being. The development of minimum (global) human rights standards challenges the exclusive powers of States to impose a system of legal regulation within their own territory. Too many Governments are ignoring the fundamental protections that are in place and which provide that every person is entitled to a safe life, secure livelihood and clean environment.

As early as 1972, a landmark international declaration provided that humankind bears 'a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations'. The failure to take meaningful action to mitigate the effects of climate change would fall sadly short of this goal.

Further, climate change has devastating effects of the human rights of many people. Reports by both the IPCC and the United Nations have clearly shown how rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other climate-related impacts significantly threaten fundamental rights such as the right to life, the right to food, the right to water, the right to health, the right to adequate housing and the self-determination rights of indigenous peoples. While there may be some arguments around the edges of this debate as to the precise extent of these impacts, no-one can dispute with any credibility that this is already taking place.

Even more significantly, it is widely agreed that climate change is itself a threat to international peace and security. Earlier this year, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights estimated that the combined effects of climate change and other economic, social and political problems, could lead to a heightened risk of conflict in 46 countries, particularly in the areas prone to the adverse impacts of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many military leaders have argued that the environmental impacts of climate change constitutes a 'threat multiplier' in fragile parts of the world, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states, which then represent fertile breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

Indeed, climate change-related impacts and the increased incidence of drought in Sudan were significant factors leading to the genocide that is currently taking place in Darfur and the instability in Somalia.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently concluded that climate change led to the dislocation of people 'by provoking conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water' and, due to its impact on the environment, was a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict. The spectre of large numbers of 'environmental refugees' looms large in several parts of the world, adding significantly to the possibility of further instability and conflict.

In each of these senses, environmental degradation arising from climate change can be both a cause and a consequence of armed conflict and instability. It has devastating effects on the fundamental rights of many millions of people. It is therefore necessary to incorporate human rights considerations into the forefront of current negotiations that are directed towards a 'post-Kyoto' world. The lack of specific attention to this issue thus far, coupled with the inadequacies of the existing legal framework of human rights instruments and mechanisms of enforcement, make this an imperative. The consequences of not acting in a comprehensive and appropriate way are too dire to contemplate.
Steven Freeland is Professor of International Law, University of Western Sydney and Visiting Professional at the International Criminal Court, The Hague. These are his personal views.



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