Linking Conditions for Human Dignity: Climate Protection and Human Rights

5 November 2009

When the African Group raised the stakes in the KP plenary earlier this week, its representatives explained that the action was prompted by the serious human suffering already occurring in Africa due to climate change.  This was an important reminder that negotiators must preserve and strengthen human rights language in the negotiating text.

Human rights are the expression of the most basic conditions necessary for a life of dignity.  In that light, the link to climate impacts is obvious.  As the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights concluded in a study released earlier this year, “Climate change-related impacts … have a range of implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights.”

The current negotiating text refers to the human rights implications of climate change as well as the need to protect vulnerable peoples.  This is a critical step in the right direction.  However, these references need to be fleshed out and strengthened.  Human rights must be central to the definition of both the problems created by climate change and their solutions.

The shared vision text explicitly recognizes that climate impacts “have a range of direct and indirect implications for the full and effective enjoyment of human rights.”  This welcome language should be strengthened by reaffirming that “human beings have the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” as recognized in the Stockholm Declaration, which is itself referenced in the UNFCCC.  The shared vision should also emphasize that a successful international climate framework will require effective mechanisms for participation at the local, national and international levels, reinforcing Article 6 of the UNFCCC and the Rio Declaration.

The “four pillars” text must also include rights language.  The mitigation text should reiterate Parties’ existing obligations to respect, protect and promote human rights.  Similarly, negotiators must reinsert the reference to human rights obligations removed from the adaptation text in Bangkok, and strengthen text on spillover effects that would ensure that human rights, such as the right to food, guide efforts to identify and prevent such harms.  In addition, strengthening the paragraph on climate-induced migration and linking it to human rights would provide crucial protections for the millions likely to be displaced as a result of climate change.

The European and InterAmerican courts of human rights have both recognized that access to information and participation in decision-making are fundamental to protecting human rights in the context of environmental threats.  The text must therefore guarantee all relevant stakeholders the rights to information and participation for all relevant stakeholders, including free prior informed consent for indigenous and other communities in accordance with international obligations.

Last month, the government of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight climate impacts that would threaten the right to statehood itself.  From Africa to the Alps to the Islands, the rights of vulnerable individuals and communities require explicit protection in the final Copenhagen agreement.

As Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said in September, “It is essential from a human rights perspective that the Copenhagen accord not only ensures the reduction of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, but also guarantees the participation of citizens.”

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