Why are human rights essential to a global climate regime?

It is only in a climate regime recognising human rights that we will be able to ensure that the lives, livelihoods, cultures, and traditions of people will not be lost or forgotten. 

Ayeen Karunungan
14 December 2015
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A survivor of Typhoon Haiyan. Arlynn Aquino EU/ECHO, Leyte, Philippines, November 2013. Flickr. Some rights reserved.One year after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, Teresita, with no money but with a handful of prayers, dared to travel from Samar to Manila in search of a job. Her house is a few kilometres away from San Juanico Bridge, which connects Samar and Leyte where Haiyan made its landfall. Her house, along with her family’s small coconut plantation, was washed away when the water drowned the city.

In Olkaria, Naivasha in Kenya, the Maasai indigenous people have been evicted for a geothermal power plant, a clean energy project. Similarly in western Kenya, forest dependent Sengwer indigenous peoples have been accused of being the cause of deforestation and have been evicted from the Embobut Forest.

Whenua — the Maori word for land, also means placenta. There is a tradition in Tuvalu where women who give birth bury the whenua and the pito (umbilical cord) of the baby and plant a tree on top, signifying the relationship between the child and the land of their birth. This is why the people of Tuvalu, unlike their neighbors in Marshall Islands and Fiji, are hesitant to relocate and leave their land. Their land is their culture; their land is their language. 

Human rights and climate change

The issue of climate change has long ceased to be just an environmental issue. Climate change impacts people most. It is about individuals, families, and communities whose lives, cultures, and traditions are now increasingly at risk of being lost.

Climate change has become a serious threat to even the most basic fundamental human rights — right to life, right to shelter, right to food, right to security. It has even become a threat to the very existence of some peoples.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some of current and projected impacts of climate change on human rights include: 50 million more people being at risk of hunger by 2020 and an additional 132 million people by 2050, crop yields could fall by 30% in Central and South Asia by 2050, between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa are likely to face greater water shortage by 2020, and the risk of dengue fever is estimated to reach 3.5 billion people by 2085.

The issue of human rights in connection to climate change has only come to the forefront in the most recent years of climate negotiations, with Ecuador first proposing the principle of human rights being included in the climate agreement in 2013. Mexico took the lead at COP20 in Lima with support from the negotiating group AILAC (The Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean). The Philippines has also become vocal and has been pushing for human rights in the negotiations.

“It’s not just about the rights of those impacted, it is the human rights of those people who will be impacted by what we do to deal with climate change,” said Philippine negotiator Antonio La Vina.

“We need to make sure that for actions we will take, we protect, respect, and promote human rights. For example, workers of coal power plants who will close down would need to have a just transition to cleaner jobs,” he added.

From impacted people such as victims of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the indigenous people in Kenya who are facing eviction from their land in order to make way for clean energy, to the people of Tuvalu who are at danger of losing their culture, one thing is clear — there will be no climate justice without human rights.

Saudi Arabia puts poison pill in human rights

Not everyone agrees on human rights, however. The Arab countries have been blocking human rights inside the negotiations. A row between Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia broke out on Thursday because Saudi Arabia insisted on putting “occupied territories” as part of the agreement.

“Saudi Arabia put a poison pill inside the text to kill human rights,” said a source from inside the negotiations, who wants to stay anonymous.

Israel has occupied territories consisting of Palestinian territories on the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip so Israel’s non-support of ‘rights of occupied territories’ is not surprising. 

“We all know Saudi Arabia doesn’t want human rights inside the text so they proposed to put in ‘rights of occupied territories,’ knowing it will not be accepted by countries like Israel and the US. This is not to say that occupied territories have no rights, but it is a political statement that should be dealt elsewhere. We know the intentions of Saudi Arabia as they have been trying to block human rights in the negotiations,” the anonymous source added.

Countries who have been pushing for human rights inside the negotiations remain positive and also vigilant. “We are being vigilant about it because we are not sure it will survive,” La Vina said.

Earlier this week, Norway was also hesitant about supporting human rights, fearful that their citizens would have the right to sue the government the way citizens in the Netherlands did. 886 Dutch citizens sued their government for “knowingly contributing” to breaching the maximum target of 2 degrees of global warming. A court in The Hague ruled in favour of the people, ordering the Dutch government to cut its emissions by at least 25% within five years.

Climate change and human rights can no longer be separated from each other. They do not simply overlap. They meld into one. For as long as human rights are not recognised in the climate regime, we cannot protect all the Teresita’s, all the Maasal’s and all the Tuvaluan’s of this world. It is only in a climate regime recognising human rights that we will be able to ensure that the lives, livelihoods, cultures, and traditions of people will not be lost or forgotten.

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