“As we take steps to address climate change, we must not do so at the cost of the most vulnerable and discriminated [against] members of the world’s communities,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said during a 23-24 February seminar.
Pillay and others pointed out that global warming would have a harsh impact on many of the least developed countries and particularly marginalized communities, which suffer from poor resilience and inadequate ability to respond to climate change.
“The worst affected areas include Central, East and West Africa, the Pacific and South Asia. Almost every sub-Saharan African country is vulnerable to a greater degree, as are small islands and low-lying coastal countries,” said Dipi Moni, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh.
“Historically responsible countries must not turn a blind eye to the denial of human rights of millions affected in vulnerable countries,” Moni said.
“A principal measure of human rights obligations can be through assessing the harm caused to others. There are sufficient reasons to affirm that emission reduction and compensatory financing constitute human rights obligations.”
“Customary international law says it is the obligation of every state not to allow itself knowingly to be used for acts contrary to the rights of other states,” she told participants, adding that failure by responsible countries to take remedial action would amount to a violation of human rights.
Pillay warned that global warming would exacerbate “so-called natural disasters”, which killed approximately 296,000 people in 2010 alone, mainly in the developing world.
“Slowly and incrementally, land will become too dry to till, crops will die, rising sea levels will flood coastal dwellings and spoil freshwater, species will disappear and livelihoods will vanish. Mass migration and conflicts will result and then only gradually will these awful consequences touch upon the lifestyles and activities of those who are most responsible for global warming.”
The impact of climate change would be most acutely felt by those whose rights protections were already precarious, including the poor, migrants, the disabled, indigenous people and women.
Experts warned that climate change already is causing millions of people to leave their homes, a trend expected to increase dramatically in coming years.
“Migrants who are compelled to leave their homes as a coping strategy will often remain in a precarious position throughout the cycle of their journey; they will be vulnerable to human rights violations as they move across borders, and will frequently be in an irregular situation,” Pillay said.
Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo said that by 2050, there would be about 200 million “climate migrants” around the world, including 20 million displaced by rising sea levels and resulting salinity, as well as storm surges and cyclones, in Bangladesh alone.
Dinah Shelton, who chairs the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said various regional treaties – to which over 100 countries are signatories – enshrine the “right to a safe and healthy environment”.
“Why take a human rights approach to climate change? First, in a rather cynical way because nothing else is working,” said Shelton, of the George Washington University Law School.
“We have seen efforts through the environmental law regime, we’ve seen 25 years of sustainable development since the Brundtland Commission, and the emphasis has been much more on ‘development’ than ‘sustainable’; the climate change situation does not seem to have improved.
“Can human rights address some of these issues in a more effective manner? I think the answer is yes, partly because of the very high place that human rights law plays in the global community.”