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International Human Rights and Climate Change

Today, October 15, is Blog Action Day and this year’s issue is climate change. Over a decade ago, most countries joined an international treaty; the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to encourage action on the issue of global warming. The website of the UNFCC is here. More recently, a great number of nations, including Ireland but excluding the United States, ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 15, will take place  in Copenhagen, Denmark this December. The Conference website contains a wealth of information while The  Guardian has a good set of resources on COP15 here. COP15 has been billed as the most important Conference  to date.

The human rights challenges posed by climate change are myriad. We are becoming aware, in particular, of the phenomenon of  ‘climate change refugees’. The possibility that climate change will render the present inhabitants of small island nations stateless is very real. You can find the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ resources on climate change here, including its May 2009 report Forced Displacement in the Context of Climate Change: Challenges for States Under International Law.

Today the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development warned that international refugee law was inadequate to deal with migrants who have been displaced by the natural disasters which flow from climate change. In September, Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation similarly wrote on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog that:

[T]here is a complete absence of any formal, enforceable, legal multilateral mechanism designed to address the needs of these people and assist in creating some greater equality and proportionality between those causing climate change and those most affected.

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the second world war; its focus on those who are forced from their country of origin through fear of persecution, “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. In today’s world, the 1951 convention cannot meet the needs of climate refugees, as its narrow legal definitions will not apply to most of those affected by climate change. Also, the specific desire and best option for many will be to stay within their national boundaries if the financial and technical assistance to do so were forthcoming.

Just as the overarching threat of climate change is one of global responsibility, so is the fate of climate refugees. In this context, there is a clear and compelling imperative to create a new multilateral legal mechanism – and with it a new legal definition for climate refugees – that enshrines the right to life, food, health, water, housing and other essentials. This should apply to all those who are now affected and the millions more who will be affected by the changes in our climate created largely by a distant, and still largely unresponsive, wealthy west.

The COP15 blog contains a post written by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay which sets out some of the implications of climate change for human rights.  Referring to her office’s March 2009 report (available here) on the relationship between climate change and human rights, the High Commissioner says:

he OHCHR study documents that climate change-related effects have serious implications for the enjoyment of human rights. For example, increasing food insecurity and extreme weather events, will place human rights related to life, food, water and health under additional strain.

Another important point made in the study is that, generally, the adverse effects of climate change on human rights are not a natural given, but can be mitigated through appropriate policy measures. Thus, vulnerability to climate change effects is often determined or aggravated by non-climatic factors, such as discrimination and unequal power relationships. This ‘political nature’ of the effects of climate change, further highlights the relevance of addressing and analysing climate change through a human rights lens.

As is well known, the poorest countries in the world, which have generally contributed the least to human-induced climate change, are set to be hit first and the hardest by global warming. Today, millions of people find themselves on the “front line” of climate change, living in places where even small climatic changes can have catastrophic consequences for lives and livelihoods. Vulnerability due to geography is compounded by a lack of resources to cope with the adverse effects of climate change. The same pattern is found within countries in all parts of the world where climate change-related effects exacerbate existing vulnerabilities related to factors such as poverty, age and gender.

While it is difficult to classify physical impacts of climate change as violations of international human rights law (not least because of the complex web of causal relationships linking specific climate change effects with greenhouse gas emissions of specific States), international human rights standards and guarantees provide important protection in the face of climate change-related effects. In principle, a State could under certain circumstances be liable under international human rights law for a failure, though acts or omissions, to protect individuals against climate change-related harm affecting the enjoyment of human rights.

Our study also points out how human rights standards and principles should inform and strengthen policy-making in the area of climate change and how human rights obligations of international assistance and cooperation complement and reinforce commitments made by States under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Forced Displacement in the Context of Climate Change: Challenges for States Under International Law

  1. November 12, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Very interesting article.

    I think it is important to note though that the term ‘climate refugees’ is misleading and could potentially undermine the current legal regime for the protection of refugees. Until a new legal definition is agreed upon for people displaced by climate change, the term ‘forced climate migrants’ is more appropriate.

    It is great to see climate change discussed as a human rights issue. Oxfam Ireland sees it as much more than an environmental concern. It is most definitely a human rights issue, an issue of global justice and that is why we are campaigning for a fair and safe deal for all in the lead up to the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

    All the best,


    Oxfam Ireland

  1. October 23, 2009 at 3:04 am
  2. October 29, 2009 at 12:16 am

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