Published on
The Age (Australia)

It's Time to Talk About Human Rights in the Climate Debate

Steven Freeland

It is clear that climate change is having an effect on 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 mitigating action needed), 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, habitation and, ultimately, on human rights.

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

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

Despite differences of opinion that emerged between developed and developing countries about the 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 declaration into legally binding obligations. All countries are required to comply with them.

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

It is true that in most, if not all, of these areas, the report card is ''mixed'' at best. States continue to protect their sovereignty and defend against any perceived threats to their cultural and political integrity, and economic wellbeing.

The development of minimum human rights standards challenges the 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, 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 over climate change would fall sadly short of this goal.

Further, climate change has devastating effects on the human rights of many people. Reports by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations have shown how rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other climate-related impacts threaten fundamental rights such as the right to life, the right to food, water, health, adequate housing and the self-determination rights of indigenous peoples. While there may be some arguments 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 UN High Commissioner 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 areas prone to the adverse effects of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Many military leaders have argued that the environmental impacts of climate change constitute a ''threat multiplier'' in fragile parts of the world, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states and breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

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

The UNHCR recently concluded that climate change led to the dislocation of people ''by provoking conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water'' and was a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict. The spectre of large numbers of ''environmental refugees'' looms in several parts of the world, adding 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 millions of people. It is therefore necessary to incorporate human rights considerations into the negotiations directed towards a ''post-Kyoto'' world.

The lack of attention to this issue thus far, coupled with the inadequacies of the legal framework of human rights documents and enforcement, make this an imperative.

The consequences of not acting in a comprehensive and appropriate way are too dire to contemplate.

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Steven Freeland is professor of international law at the University of Western Sydney and visiting professional at the International Criminal Court, The Hague.

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