UNITED NATIONS

Press Release



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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON CLIMATE CHANGE AND HUMAN RIGHTS




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Human Rights Council
AFTERNOON
15 June 2009

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a panel discussion on the relationship between climate change and human rights during which participants raised a large number of issues, including the barrier that climate change posed to development in some countries; how climate change impacted on the right to life, food, safe water and health, home, land, properties, livelihoods, employment and development; and how the poor in developing countries were the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and the responsibility of developed countries which had caused the climate change to help them mitigate climate change effects.

Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in an opening statement, said climate change posed an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world. The human impact of climate change was not only related to environmental factors but also to poverty, discrimination and inequalities. The human rights perspective, focusing on the right of everyone to a dignified life based on the fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination, was particularly well-suited to analyse how climate change affected people differently. The human rights perspective also underlined the importance of empowerment. A successful outcome of ongoing climate change negotiations mattered for human rights - a new climate change agreement should be fair, balanced, and sufficiently ambitious to be effective.

Feng Gao, Director for Legal Affairs of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Secretariat, also in an opening statement, said they were at the crossroads of a critical phase in the international negotiations that began with the adoption of the Bali Action Plan in 2007 and were set to conclude in Copenhagen this December. The outcome of the Copenhagen Conference was set to change the direction of the world economic growth and gather the necessary financial and technological support to enable developing country parties to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. This would not only be a major advance for our planet and the fragile ecosystems that our societies depended on, but it would also be a major advance for the poorest and most vulnerable people, who were least prepared for the potential impact of climate change. It was this recognition of the human suffering that climate change might cause that would ultimately mobilize all to action.

Serving as panellists were Atiq Rahman, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies; Dalindyebo Shabalala, Managing Attorney at the Geneva Office of the Center for International Environmental Law; Raquel Rolnik, United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living; and John Knox, Professor of Law at Wake Forest University.

Atiq Rahman, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, said global climate change had emerged as the greatest threat facing humankind today. The long arm of climate change impacts was likely to undermine various fundamental human rights and basic securities. These rights and securities included the right to life, food, safe water and health, home, land, properties, livelihoods, employment and development. Climate change affected almost all ecosystems, societies and economies. But the effects were different depending on their location, economic status, history of development and governance patterns. The poor in developing countries were the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and extreme climatic events such as frequent and prolonged floods, cyclone, tidal surges, salinity intrusion, sea level rise and drought.

Dalindyebo Shabalala, Managing Attorney at the Geneva Office of the Center for International Environmental Law, said the challenge was to make the climate change and human rights linkage work to address both the need to address the former, and ensure the realisation and protection of the latter. This required mechanisms and processes for managing and integrating human rights and climate change, but those mechanisms depended on some understanding of how human rights could add value and contribute to addressing climate change. There were two elements to this: the first was the extent to which human rights could add to the moral and ethical justifications for addressing climate change; the second was the extent to which human rights could contribute, instrumentally, to the implementation and effectiveness of actions, mechanisms and institutions to address climate change.

Raquel Rolnik, United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, said the effects of climate change were already being felt today, and threatened to intensify in the years ahead. With the industrial revolution and the following migration to urban areas, a new era had started which had led to a radical instability. One billion human beings lived under the confluence of poverty, located in hazard-prone sites which were more exposed to landslides and floods and lack of infrastructure. Rising sea levels would threaten Small Island States and would displace whole populations, but this would mean migration to precarious urban areas and cause other human rights related problems there. In this way, climate change not only affected low-income populations but also middle-income populations.

John Knox, Professor of Law at Wake Forest University, said climate change did not challenge human rights law merely because it was an environmental problem. It was true that bringing human rights law to bear on climate change might be simpler if universal human rights treaties explicitly recognized a right to a healthy environment. States had the duty under human rights law concerning climate change regardless of whether climate change was a human rights violation. It was of the highest importance that the human rights architecture contributed to that negotiation, not interfere with it. There were three possible ways of doing so which included the study of the effects of climate change in a more detailed human context; human rights law should set the standard that the climate negotiation had to meet; and human rights treaties bodies such as the Council should call attention to specific areas that were not being addressed in the climate negotiations, but which had serious implications for human rights.

In the context of the discussion, speakers said, among other things, that climate change posed serious barriers to the achievement of human rights in Small Island States. Climate change meant competition for resources such as land, food, and water, and also had an impact on international peace and security. It was unjust that the least responsible and most vulnerable suffered most from climate change - international assistance and provision of technical assistance and financing should be provided to remedy this. Women, children and the elderly suffered most from the impact of climate change, and thus it should be approached from the human aspect in order to remedy it. The right to food, safety, health and other socio-economic rights had to be protected, including through preparedness. The principal forum to discuss climate change was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The debate was an opportunity for the Council to strengthen the human dimension in the international debate and in measures to deal with the effects of climate change.

Speaking this afternoon were the representatives of the Maldives, Azerbaijan, Israel, Philippines, Thailand, India, Mauritius, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Finland, China, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Germany, Israel, Costa Rica, Bhutan, Indonesia, Uruguay, Switzerland, Slovenia, Chad, Cuba, Canada, Maldives, Algeria, Monaco, Turkey, European Commission, Australia, United States, Mexico, Bolivia and Morocco. Also speaking were the Worldwide Organisation for Women, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Civicus- World Alliance for Citizens Participation and North South XXI.

The next meeting of the Council will be at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 16 June, when it will hold a general debate on item seven on its agenda, namely the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied territories. The Council will be holding three meetings back to back on Tuesday, meeting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. without a break.


Opening Statements

Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, introducing the discussion, said the Human Rights Council had played a key role in drawing attention to the human rights implications of climate change. Climate change posed an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world. Several Special Procedures of the Council had started to consider the implications of climate change-related effects and policies for specific rights in specific contexts. The study prepared by the Office highlighted the striking climate injustice that many of the least developed countries and small island States, which had contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions, would be worst affected by global warming. Those countries were vulnerable due to, among others, their low capacity to effectively adapt to climate change. The human rights perspective underlined the need for international cooperation to address the unequal burden falling on those who were least able to carry its weight.

It was clear that, within countries, those individuals and groups who were already vulnerable and marginalized in society were also particularly exposed to climate change-related threats, for example, women, due to gender discrimination and inhibiting gender roles, and indigenous peoples, who often depended on natural resources for their livelihoods and inhabited fragile ecosystems. The human impact of climate change was not only related to environmental factors but also to poverty, discrimination and inequalities. The human rights perspective, focusing on the right of everyone to a dignified life based on the fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination, was particularly well-suited to analyse how climate change affected people differently. The human rights perspective also underlined the importance of empowerment. A successful outcome of ongoing climate change negotiations mattered for human rights - a new climate change agreement should be fair, balanced, and sufficiently ambitious to be effective. The scientific evidence showed that action today and over the next year would be of crucial importance to avert irreversible climate change which could reach catastrophic dimensions and have grave implications for human rights protection. This should be a rallying call for urgent and decisive action.

FENG GAO, Director for Legal Affairs of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, said that they were at the crossroads of a critical phase in the international negotiations that had begun with the adoption of the Bali Action Plan in 2007 and were set to conclude in Copenhagen this December. At the latest session of the negotiation bodies, which had taken place in Bonn last week, the Ad Hoc Working Group established under the Climate Change Convention and its Kyoto Protocol had had negotiation texts before them and had shifted into full negotiations mode. The outcome of the Copenhagen Conference would change the direction of world economic growth and gather the necessary financial and technological support to enable developing country parties to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. That would not only be a major advance for the planet and the fragile ecosystems that societies depended on, but it would also be a major advance for the poorest and most vulnerable people, who were least prepared for the potential impact of climate change. It was that recognition that had prompted negotiators to give equal urgency to adaptation to the impacts of climate change as to the mitigation of its causes. It was the recognition of the human suffering that climate change might cause that would ultimately mobilize them all to action.

Strong momentum was building for a decisive outcome of the Copenhagen Conference that would enable parties to pursue their shared but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in order to fulfil the objectives of the Convention. There were five key building blocks that had been identified: there needed to be agreement on a shared vision on long-term cooperative action that sent a political message that guided countries’ long-term efforts, including a long-term goal. There needed to be agreement on enhanced action on adaptation, amounting to a comprehensive programme or framework for adaptation that answered to that urgent priority for all States, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable. There needed to be agreement on emission reduction targets for developed countries. There also needed to be agreement on nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing countries, matched with appropriate international support. And there needed to be agreement on finance, technology and capacity-building that would enable those actions, including agreement on a balanced, equitable and workable governance structure that found a middle ground between the proposals from different countries.


Statements by Panellists

ATIQ RAHMAN, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, said that global climate change had emerged as the greatest threat facing humankind today. The long arm of climate change impacts was likely to undermine various fundamental human rights and basic securities. Those rights and securities included the right to life, food, safe water and health, home, land, property, livelihood, employment and development. Climate change affected almost all ecosystems, societies and economies. But the effects were different depending on location, economic status, history of development and governance patterns. The poor in developing countries were the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and extreme climatic events such as frequent and prolonged floods, cyclones, tidal surges, salinity intrusion, sea-level rise and drought. Climate change would increase global poverty and human insecurities (food, water, health, energy, shelters and social securities), enhance regional disparity and violate sets of basic human rights if urgent actions were not taken now by the global communities. Climate change, sea level rise and the associated risks might displace over 200 million people in the near future.

To further illustrate the effects of climate change, Mr Rahman wished to tell a story, the story of a woman in El Salvador, in Latin America, travelling to join her husband who had been posted by an international non-governmental organization job in Dakar, Senegal, in Africa. She was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. A few hours into the flight, the plane faced turbulence and had to land in an airport in Florida, in the United States. Because of the turbulence and nervousness, she gave birth to a premature baby on United States soil. That baby could have been born a few hours earlier in El Salvador or the next day in Dakar, Senegal. It was purely a chance of history and circumstances that it was born in the United States. Yet, one could model the future consumption history of that child depending on where it was born. The fact that the child was born in the United States meant that she would consume tens of times more petroleum, would travel many times more by cars and airlines, would consume meat many times more and also use and waste water by a huge margin over children born in other countries.

Dalindyebo Shabalala, Managing Attorney at the Geneva Office of the Center for International Environmental Law, said the challenge was to make the climate change and human rights linkage work to address both the need to address the former, and ensure the realization and protection of the latter. That required mechanisms and processes for managing and integrating human rights and climate change, but those mechanisms depended on some understanding of how human rights could add value and contribute to addressing climate change. There were two elements to this: the first was the extent to which human rights could add to the moral and ethical justifications for addressing climate change; the second was the extent to which human rights could contribute, instrumentally, to the implementation and effectiveness of actions, mechanisms and institutions to address climate change. A human rights threshold approach would create a line, by establishing minimally acceptable levels below which the impacts of climate change could not be allowed to go. To allow climate to affect the realization of rights so that they fell below the threshold could therefore become unlawful, or at least politically unacceptable.

Climate change was already having a negative impact on the realization of human rights, and that underscored the urgent need for renewed support for climate change adaptation. Further, mitigation policies to respond could also have human rights impacts – climate change mitigation and adaptation could not come at the expense of human rights. A human rights framework could also be a powerful tool for monitoring and evaluating mitigation and adaptation programmes, as well as being an integral part of impact assessment. The effects of climate change that indigenous people were experiencing had profound and disproportionate adverse effects on their cultures, human and environmental health, human rights, well-being, traditional livelihoods, food systems and food sovereignty, economic viability, and their very survival as indigenous people. A rights-based approach could ensure proper safeguards for indigenous peoples, including the right to free, prior, and informed consent [of the use of their traditional lands].

RAQUEL ROLNIK, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, said that the effects of climate change were already being felt today, and threatened to intensify in the years ahead. With the industrial revolution and the following migration to urban areas, a new era had started which had led to a radical instability. The threat facing them was not a threat to the Earth. The Earth would survive, as it had survived many cataclysms before. The question was not a question of the Earth’s but of human kind’s survival. It was appropriate to use the Bible’s picture of Noah’s Ark: who would be building the Ark? For whom would the Ark be accessible? Ninety per cent of the increasing world population would be living in the urban areas of the least developed regions. Migration would increase which would lead to more pressure in other regions. One billion human beings lived under the confluence of poverty, location in hazard-prone sites, which were more exposed to landslides and floods, and lack of infrastructure. Rising sea level would threaten small island States and would displace whole populations, but that would mean migration to precarious urban areas and cause other human rights-related problems there. In that way, climate change not only affected low-income populations but also middle-income populations.

Under the human rights perspective, they should ask themselves whether the self-interest of some classes or solidarity be the response to climate change. Could green-gated communities really be their reaction? The direction now should be not only the fund for adaptation for developing countries or controlling emissions. That was not sufficient, but absolutely necessary. Other measures, such as assisted migration, were needed. Any solution should not only be designed for but with the affected people. Ms. Rolnik reiterated her support for the Human Rights Council to further examine the link between human rights and climate change and examine measures to confront the challenges ahead.

JOHN H. KNOX, Professor of Law, Wake Forest University, said that climate change did not challenge human rights law merely because it was an environmental problem. It was true that bringing human rights law to bear on climate change might be simpler if universal human rights treaties explicitly recognized a right to a healthy environment and set out the corresponding duties. Nevertheless, it had long been clear that environmental degradation may, and often did, harm human rights that were already recognized. For example, the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights agreed that “illicit dumping of toxic and dangerous substances and waste potentially constituted a serious threat to the human rights to life and health of everyone”. Climate change posed an even graver threat to the human rights, including rights to life, health, water, food, and self-determination. Three aspects of climate change did challenge the human rights architecture, however. First, climate change was highly complex. It arose from innumerable sources, its effects were often difficult to disentangle from other causes, and its worst effects were yet to occur. Whether climate change violated human rights law was not the key question. States had the duty under human rights law concerning climate change regardless of whether climate change was a human rights violation.

The second challenge climate change posed to human rights law was that it was a global problem, beyond the scope of any one State, said Mr. Knox. To be effective, human rights law must require States to work together to address the problem on a global basis. The problem here was that extraterritorial obligations under human rights law may have been contested or unclear. To respond to this challenge, human rights law must return to its roots in the Charter of the United Nations. While the duty to take joint action – that was, to cooperate with one another as an international community – was part of the international human rights architecture, it often played a subordinate role. The third challenge climate change posed was that it was already the subject of another forum. That forum, the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, had the technical expertise, experience, and mandate necessary to negotiate an effective climate agreement, observed Mr. Knox. It was of the highest importance that the human rights architecture contributed to that negotiation, not interfere with it. In conclusion, Mr. Knox said there were three possible ways of doing so which included, the study of the effects of climate change in a more detailed human context; human rights law should set the standard that the climate negotiation had to meet; and human rights treaties bodies such as the Council should call attention to specific areas that were not being addressed in the climate negotiations, but which had serious implications for human rights.

Discussion

In the first part of the discussion, speakers said, among other things, that climate change posed serious barriers to the achievement of human rights in Small Island States. It was very encouraging that the international community was engaging in an interactive dialogue on the linkage between climate change and human rights. The impact of climate change on small communities in Small Island States was a daily reality. Steps should be taken through international assistance to ensure the application of human rights, especially by those countries which bore a historical responsibility for climate change. There should be preparation for the most vulnerable communities to allow them to deal better with the effects of climate change. What were the obligations of States in mitigating the impact of climate change, a speaker asked?

Climate change meant competition for resources such as land, food, and water, and also had an impact on international peace and security. It was unjust that the least responsible and most vulnerable suffered most from climate change - international assistance and provision of technical assistance and financing should be provided to remedy this. Women, children and the elderly suffered most from the impact of climate change, and thus this issue should be approached from the human aspect in order to remedy it. Climate change policies and responses should be carried out in tandem with efforts to eliminate discrimination and empower vulnerable groups and societies. The best and most appropriate way to deal with the issue was to develop a sustainable approach from a multilateral level - the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities were crucial to the international community's response to climate change. Global strategies should be elaborated.

Response from the Panellists

ATIQ RAHMAN, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, said that it was true that climate change would threaten a number of human rights, including the right to self-determination. A number of major and rapid steps were needed now. As was discussed in many other fora, mitigation was the best form of adaptation. Mitigation had to taken place quickly and be led by the developed countries that had primarily caused climate change for the last decades since the industrial revolution. It was urgent that all moved rapidly, especially the developed countries. This had to be reflected in the Copenhagen Summit. It was also imperative that human rights and climate change had to be connected during that Conference.

RAQUEL ROLNIK, United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, in response to the questions and comments posed during the discussion on human rights and climate change, said with regard to the points made on how special procedure mandate holders were tackling the issue of climate change, the special procedure mandate holders were already working on the issue, and planned to meet in a common session in order to address and take into consideration all the different perspectives that each mandate holder covered with respect to climate change, therefore applying a more integrated approach to the topic. With regard to the question raised on the relationship of responsibility between developing and less developed countries, she said it was very important to take into consideration this aspect, but it was also important to consider that one billion of the earth’s inhabitants were already consuming, and there were 3 billion more ready to consume. The pattern of consumption was important to be addressed in both developing countries and less developed countries, and should be included in the discussion on responsibilities between the two.

JOHN KNOX, Professor of Law, Wake, Forest University, said to further elaborate the human rights obligations linked to climate change, it was important for the United Nations and the Council to look at how human rights law had been applied to types of environmental degradation. There were procedural requirements that were separate from substantive requirements. More needed to be done to describe the effects on human communities - a closer link was required between the human rights requirements and the procedural system. The most affected communities and States must be heard at the international level. Agreements had to be implemented. Substantively, it was clear that human rights could not be totally destroyed by environmental degradation. The international community could not decide nor allow entire States to be destroyed through inaction. As to how mechanisms could work together, they should all make climate change part of their work. The Human Rights Council could consider appointing a new mandate holder for human rights and climate change as without such a focal point, the issue would not continue to receive the sort of focused attention that it should be gaining.

Discussion

Continuing the discussion, speakers said that climate change was a primarily human rights phenomenon, and by keeping the discussion going, it could be placed firmly at the centre of the human rights issue. It was important to maintain the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, as well as the right to survive and the right to socio-economic development. The right to food, safety, health and other socio-economic rights had to be protected, including through preparedness. The principal forum to discuss climate change was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The debate was an opportunity for the Council to strengthen the human dimension in the international debate and in measures to deal with the effects of climate change. The negative effects of climate change could also be seen in more cardiovascular diseases and the reappearance of other diseases. Climate change would impact human rights for the majority of the population, in particular the most vulnerable, and thus the process leading to the adoption of resolution 10/4 and the discussion today should be supported

Was it appropriate and timely for the Council to revisit resolution 2005/60 of the Commission on Human Rights on human rights and sustainable development, a speaker asked? The planet needed to unite against climate change. Climate change and its consequences on human rights was one of the most urgent problems facing mankind today, and the discussion today was avoiding the issue that was the unsustainable nature of production in developed countries. There was a need for greater political will on the part of those actually causing environmental degradation, and they should live up to their commitments with regards to aid in order to ensure the sustainable development of countries in the South. The right to a healthy environment was now vital, and all had the duty to respond to it. Climate change and its negative effects had an effect on States' abilities to protect and promote the rights of their citizens. The Council should send a strong message to negotiators at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that climate change was already strongly on the minds of millions around the world.

Response from Panellists

FENG GAO, Director for Legal Affairs of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, said that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations would ultimately help people to increase prosperity. The discussions in the Human Rights Council were enlightening to him and he would share them with his colleagues in Bonn. Proposals that had been put forward would be taken into account during the negotiations.

ATIQ RAHMAN, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, said that he was fascinated by the wide ranging implications raised in the discussion that had taken place, but one common theme that emerged throughout the discussion was the links between climate change and human rights. These links needed to be investigated further, and there were legal implications that needed to be probed further. The role and the life of the most vulnerable people was also highlighted by almost all speakers, and that climate change would hit hardest the most vulnerable, in particular women and children and people living in poverty. A number of issues were raised on equity fairness and justice, and Mr. Rahman said that in an unjust world, climate change would make it even more unjust. On the idea of establishing a completely new convention to address climate change, he said that this idea did not seem to get much support, therefore it seemed that building on existing mechanisms was best. Climate injustice had to be reduced, human rights injustice had to be reduced, and priority needed to be given to the most vulnerable. On access to information, he concluded by saying that it was a question of designing a solution based on existing efforts.

Dalindyebo Shabalala, Managing Attorney at the Geneva Office of the Center for International Environmental Law, said with regards to making the issue voluntary, within the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, the obligation to provide assistance for adaptation was a commitment under article four. The clarity which human rights provided was the base on which these obligations rested and where they came from, and was the framework to consider the issue. This was one of the crucial forums for discussion of the issue - as was every other forum where it was discussed. Everybody needed to be involved in the discussion - nobody could afford to be excluded. There should however be a focal point in the discussion. The quickest and most powerful thing the Council could do would be to provide a framework and pattern for the consideration of human rights in the context of climate change.

RACHEL ROLNIK, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, said that she would incorporate the issues raised here during the discussion into her report. She was already devoting a high priority to this issue, as were other Special Rapporteurs, such as the Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons and the Special Rapporteur on food, the Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and others. At their next annual meeting here in July the Special Rapporteurs would discuss climate change.

JOHN KNOX, Professor of Law, Wake Forest University, in response to the questions and comments posed during the discussion on human rights and climate change, said that it was important for the United Nations human rights bodies to coordinate efforts within the Organization, and to submit a joint report on human rights and climate change, and similarly the same went for special procedures mandate holders. On climate change and the rights of migrants, he said there was a need for new legal rules here, and it was not too early to identify them. In conclusion, human rights required all countries to take measures to ensure the protection of human rights of their citizens, but that did not mean that this meant that States needed to take all measures at once.

ERLINDA BASILIO, Vice-President of the Council, said the discussion had shed further light on the relationship between climate change and human rights, and how the latter brought aid to national action on addressing climate change. As was noted a number of times, human rights brought into focus how climate change impacted the lives of individuals and communities.

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