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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 58 - Friday, 21 November 2008
A Rights-Informed Approach to Tackling Climate Change
By Marc Limon*
2007 was a year of important climate change anniversaries.

It saw the 20th anniversary of the first discussion of climate change by Commonwealth leaders. In 1987 in Vancouver, the former President of the Maldives, H.E. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom described how unprecedented waves had caused widespread destruction in the Maldives. Following the speech, Heads of Government “expressed serious concern at the possible implications of man-made climate change, especially for low-lying and marginal agricultural areas” and asked the Secretary-General to look into the issue.

A few weeks later, in New York, President Gayoom delivered an address to the United Nations General Assembly in which he warned the world about the growing threat to the planet posed by climate change and associated rises in mean sea-levels. This was the first time that the issue of climate change had been raised before world leaders at the UN. In that speech, the President informed delegates, in no uncertain terms, that a failure to act to stave off the threat of climate change would result in the death of the Maldives and many countries like it.

These were momentous events and no doubt helped to move climate change up the political agenda at a time when most of the world was silent.

However, last year’s 20th Anniversary of the two landmark events in Vancouver and New York was unfortunately not a happy one, as the intervening years have been a time of failed promises and missed opportunities. Despite the warnings of the Maldives and other vulnerable communities and despite the construction of a global architecture to tackle climate change, global emissions are rising at an ever-faster rate and world leaders appear increasingly divided over how to respond. 

To mark these anniversaries, on 17 July 2007, President Gayoom gave a speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society in London in which he sought to understand the reasons why the world had failed to act. In his speech that day, the President quoted Mr. James MacNeill, former Secretary-General of the World Commission on Environment and Development and also the principal author of “Our Common Future”, who once said “perhaps the greatest weakness of sustainable development lies in the fact that we have not yet begun to invent a politics to go with the concept”. Mirroring this theme, the President argued that: “the greatest tragedy of climate change is that we have not yet invented a politics to respond to the warnings of our scientists”. The President proposed that the key factor holding back progress on climate change – namely a lack of political will – is in part caused by the incorrect perception that global warming is a scientific issue; a matter of degrees centigrade, millimetres and parts per millions; a line graph stretching reassuringly into the future.

The President’s conclusion was that this situation had to change if the world was to match scientific necessity with political drive. The world would need to reconceptualise climate change as a profoundly human issue with human causes and human consequences. In short, the world would need to understand and become convinced of the immediate, compelling and catastrophic “human dimension of global climate change”.

The Maldives therefore launched, that day, a major international initiative to highlight the human face of climate change with the aim of creating a legal, moral and ethical imperative for the world to act and to agree a new meaningful and effective climate change regime in Copenhagen in 2009.

This call to “humanise” climate change has been taken up with gusto by a myriad of international actors following the Royal Commonwealth Society meeting in London. The United Nations Development Programme’s 2007/2008 Human Development Report, entitled “Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World” highlighted the impacts of climate change on human development. The World Health Organisation has made great strides in addressing the severe health implications of global warming. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have drawn attention to the humanitarian impacts of environmental migration caused by climate change. And former UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan has used his new international foundation, the Global Humanitarian Forum, to highlight the human face of climate change and to call for climate justice for the world’s poor.

For its part, the Maldives decided to address the human rights implications of climate change and use this as a lens to focus world attention on the human suffering caused by climate change at an individual-level. The basic premise of this approach is that climate change has massive and widespread implications for a range of fundamental human rights, and that in a world order built upon concepts of international law, solidarity and justice, it is surely wrong for the international community to sit idly by while the Earth's greatest natural resource - the shared global ecosphere - is critically undermined by the economically-motivated actions of a privileged few at the expense of the rights of the underprivileged many.

The Maldives Government has since taken a number of steps to move the initiative forward and to draw attention to the human rights dimension of climate change. On 20 September 2007, H.E. Abdulla Shahid, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave a landmark speech to the UN Human Rights Council in which he called on the Council to hold a debate on the link between climate change and the full enjoyment of human rights. Then on 13 and 14 November 2007, the Maldives hosted a Small Island States Conference on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change. During the Conference, the world’s Small Island States, which are among the most vulnerable communities on the planet to climate change, discussed the impact of global warming on individual people in their countries and also asked the question: how does climate change affect the human rights of our citizens? The outcome of the Conference was the Male’ Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change, which for the first time in an international agreement explicitly said that “climate change has clear and immediate implications for the full enjoyment of human rights”. This Declaration was taken to UNFCCC COP 13 in Bali and was presented to assembled world governments by President Gayoom.

Building on the momentum generated by these steps, in March 2008 the Maldives, together with 80 co-sponsors from all regional groups, secured the adoption, by consensus, of United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 7/23 on "Human Rights and Climate Change", which, for the first time in an official UN resolution, stated explicitly that global warming has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights. The resolution asked the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to prepare a study on these implications ahead of a full Human Rights Council debate on the subject in March 2009. The Resolution further requires the Study and a summary of the Council debate to be sent to States Parties to the UNFCCC ahead of COP 15 in Copenhagen, in order to inform negotiations. 

To help with the preparation of the study, OHCHR issued a call for written evidence and views on the human impacts of climate change. Thus far, it has received around 60 submissions from States, international organisations, regional intergovernmental organisations, national human rights organisations, and non-governmental organisations. To supplement and build-on this information, on 22 October OHCHR organised an international consultation meeting at the United Nations in Geneva on the relationship between climate change and human rights.

The Maldives’ detailed written submission to the OHCHR Study1 provides incontestable and alarming evidence on the scale and severity of the human impacts of climate change as seen through a human rights lens. It also provides argumentation on the legal and moral obligations beholden on States to cooperate internationally to stop and reverse global warming. Speaking at the OHCHR consultations, the Maldives delegation summarised the findings and also proposed potential ways forward.

In terms of the former, the Maldives noted that climate change has clear, immediate, serious, and often devastating implications for a wide range of human rights, including the right to health, water, food, adequate housing, means of subsistence, work, culture, and, in extreme cases, to self-determination, to nationality, and even to life. It argued, moreover, this vast array of rights is not only implicated on a small- or localized-scale. The malign impacts of climate change are being felt by millions of people around the world on a daily basis. What is more, these impacts fall most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society. 

In terms of ways forward, the Maldives proposed two broad categories of possible response.

Firstly, human rights thinking and understanding should be fed into the UNFCCC climate change negotiation process in order to inform, complement, guide and energize those talks. As noted previously, one of the major weaknesses of the global discourse on climate change to-date, led by the UNFCCC, has been its heavy focus on scientific cause and effect. Because of this, until recently, the world has remained largely ignorant of the scale and the immediacy of the human consequences of the problem. The Maldives argued that human rights language, laws and approaches have the potential to correct this imbalance by providing a lens through which the world’s climate change negotiators can better understand and respond to the challenge facing them. This “rights-informed approach” would play a complementary role to the primarily scientific/environmental law UNFCCC negotiations by informing and helping to guide climate change policy.

By adopting such an approach, the human rights community would be able to undertake small and manageable, yet also practical and useful steps to support the UNFCCC process. Such steps might include, for example: the provision of information on what a 2 degree, 3 degree, or 4 degree rise in global temperatures would mean in practice for vulnerable people and communities around the world; or the development of practical guidelines for promoting and protecting human rights while designing and implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Longer-term, the growing international focus on the relationship between human rights and climate change has interesting implications for the concept of “environmental rights” or “the right to a safe and sustainable environment”.

If you accept, as the UN now has, that climate change has significant environmental impacts and that these impacts in-turn have major implications for human rights, then it is self-evident that a strong relationship must exist between environmental quality and human rights.

This concept is not a new one. Many international agreements since the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference have talked about it, while over one hundred and twenty nations have constitutional provisions intended to enshrine the right to an environment of a certain quality.

States, international organizations and conferences such as the former UN Commission on Human Rights, the 1992 Rio Summit and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, and other stakeholder groups including academics, human rights lawyers and environmentalists, have increasingly tried to draw links between human rights law and environmental law based on the premise that the life and personal integrity of each human being depends on protecting the environment as the resource base for all life. As the Stockholm Convention declared:

 “Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights – even the right to life itself”

Unfortunately, the growing international interest in environmental human rights has thus far only extended to addressing the impact of environmental degradation on existing civil and political rights such as the right to life, and on existing economic and social rights such as the right to food or to clean water. Little substantive progress has been made towards the next logical step in this evolution: to formulate and declare an explicit universal right to live in a safe and sustainable environment.

Such a move would have major implications for climate change and other trans-national environmental harms, but also for government policy and accountability both domestically and internationally. For this reason the idea is a controversial one, but perhaps the issue of climate change, one of the ultimate environmental manifestations of globalisation, points to the need for a renewed focus on this significant gap in the continuum between international human rights policy and international environmental policy.
1 “Maldives submission under Resolution HRC7/23”, 25 September 2008. Prepared by the Government of Maldives with the assistance of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Ms. Kim Smaczniak, Harvard Law School
* Marc Limon works as an Advisor at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Maldives to the United Nations Office at Geneva. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent nor reflect the official position of any government or organization.
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