Human rights in spotlight at UN climate talks


Frustrated by a lack of progress in talks over a new climate agreement taking place in Pozna?, activists and delegates used the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to warn negotiators that legal action will increase unless governments take decisive steps to tackle global warming.

“Unless we urgently mobilise resources, the world will experience a higher degree of climate-related damage,” warned Kit Vaughan, a climate change adaptation adviser at WWF’s UK office. “The likelihood of increased legal action against major polluting countries is increasing and could lead to a raft of complex and uncoordinated legal cases,” Vaughan added.

Governments have mostly approached the response to climate change as an ecological or economic problem. Yet the human costs of global warming directly threaten the fundamental rights of all – right to life, right to a place to live and work and the right to food. These are rights that governments have an obligation to protect, activists noted. If international negotiations do not deliver a coherent and responsible deal, then poor countries “may be forced to explore other options, such as litigation,” they said.

Severe droughts, rising sea levels and wildfires misplace millions of people, while global warming, which creates refugees from Bangladesh to Brazil, is expected to become the main driver of refugee movements. Indeed, a UN report estimates that there will be at least 250 million climate refugees by 2050.

“We are not prepared to sign a suicide agreement that causes small island states to disappear,” Selwin Hart of Barbados, a coordinator at the Alliance of Small Island States, told Reuters in an interview. 

Former Irish President Mary Robinson, a member of the Global Humanitarian Forum founded recently by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, said the world had failed to realise the scale and urgency of the problem.

“Climate change shows up countless weaknesses in our current institutional architecture, including its human rights mechanism,” Robinson said, declaring that a transformation of global policy was needed to move towards law enforcement and resource distribution.

In recent years, lack of policy has forced communities affected by climate change to file legal action against national governments.

The first such case emerged in 2005, when an Inuit alliance from Canada and the United States filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. The petition alleged that the human rights of Inuit communities were being infringed and violated by the failure of the US to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

Following the Inuit case, several US states seeking stronger regulation have successfully sued federal regulators such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the International Council of Human Rights, many more cases have been reported around the world, notably against Australia (challenging the use of coal and claims that ‘clean’ coal is used in its power stations) Germany (concerning export credit agencies’ support for fossil fuel-related commercial activity) and Canada (where environmental groups are suing the government in a Canadian federal court for its stated intention to miss its Kyoto targets).

“A human rights lens remind us there are reasons beyond economics and enlightened self-interest for states to act on climate change,” Robinson wrote in the British Independent  newspaper yesterday on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). “We must now grasp the opportunity to create the kind of international order that the framers of the UDHR dreamed of.” 

The global community must decide on a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol on climate change before the United Nations conference in Copenhagen in December next year.

The critical first step was taken at the UN climate change conference in Bali in December 2007, when all countries agreed upon a roadmap for achieving a global deal by the end of 2009. Under the terms of the Bali Action Plan, a deal must be struck during the UN conferences in Pozna? in 2008 and Copenhagen in 2009.

The Pozna? negotiations appear to be progressing too slowly to produce a comprehensive global warming treaty by next year.

  • 1-12 Dec. 2008: Global climate meeting in Pozna?, Poland to discuss long-term emissions targets. 
  • Dec. 2009: Copenhagen climate conference (COP 15); projected completion of UN climate negotiations on post-2012 framework.
  • 31 Aug.-4 Sept. 2009: World Climate Conference. 
  • End 2012: Deadline for ratification of new climate deal. 

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