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Climate change is a human rights issue


The effects of climate change directly and indirectly impact on a range of human rights issues.

Small island States are among those where the effects of climate change on human rights are quite pronounced, said Anote Tong, President of the Republic of Kiribati. For example, sea level rise has meant water contamination, loss of land and crops for his nation, with people facing a future of possible statelessness.

“Climate change impact is a moral issue above all. It remains the biggest moral challenge facing human kind, and for low lying countries, climate change is about our survival into the future,” Tong said.

President Tong made his statement at a discussion on climate change and human rights during the 28th session of the Human Rights Council. The day-long event in Geneva was intended to enable the Council to identify the challenges and ways forward on human rights for all, and measures to protect human rights in the response to climate change.

Climate change affects many human rights, undercutting the rights to health, to food, to water, and for some small island nations, it may even affect the right to self-determination, said the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri. The brunt of these rights violations fall on those who have least contributed to the problem, she said.

“The poorest people in the poorest countries. Their children. And ours. Populations of small islands, and low-lying coastal lands. For some communities, climate change threatens their very survival,” Pansieri said.

Personal Pleas

However, it is irrelevant just to talk about the potential of whole nations to disappear underwater, said Enele Sosene Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu. He said what is important is to safeguard the rights of nations to uphold their own sovereignty and achieve economic well-being.

“We strongly believe that the Human Rights Council needs to make a human response to the impacts of climate change,” he said. In doing so, we need to keep in mind the necessity that the people concerned continue to enjoy and practice their own cultural and traditional practices in their own cultural and traditional ways of life.

In addition to their presentations before the Council, President Tong and Prime Minister Sopoaga met with the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein as well as the Independent Expert on Environment, John Knox to personally convey their concerns and hopes that the Council would keep climate change on its agenda.

In Vanuatu, another low-lying island nation, a recent cyclone damaged most of the island’s infrastructure and left more than 3,000 people homeless. Speaking at a United Nations conference on disaster soon after the storm, the country’s president, Baldwin Lonsdale blamed its severity on climate change.

“Existential Threat”

The discussion also focused on how to best influence the upcoming climate change negotiations, scheduled to take place in Paris in December. During the Paris conference, Member States will seek to negotiate a new climate change deal. Panellists encouraged negotiators to use a human-rights-based approach to inform the agreement, as well as having concrete means to assist in mitigation and adaptation for the most affected communities.

Climate change also presents a risk to development, said Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, Foreign Minister on Human Rights and Climate Change for Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, he pointed out that an estimated 2 to 3 percent of potential gross domestic product (GDP) is lost due to climate impacts.

All of this points to the fact that climate change poses an “existential threat,” he said.

“We must acknowledge that climate change and its effects impact on peace, stability and prosperity as much as violent conflict” Ali said.

Mary Robinson, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, recalled that “2015 presents a unique opportunity to set the global community on a new path; […] More than any other challenge we have ever faced, climate change confronts us with the reality of our interdependence. […] a focus on rights can inform and strengthen our response and maximise the effectiveness of our local, national and international climate actions.”

27 March 2015

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