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Address by Kyung-wha Kang United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 7th Gathering for Human Rights

28 September 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Distinguished participants,

I am very honoured and pleased to address this 7th Gathering for Human Rights and offer you some remarks on the theme of your Conference, the relationship between climate change and human rights. I would like to commend the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva for choosing this very important theme for this year’s Gathering. The timing is very opportune as world leaders will gather in Copenhagen in December to take important decisions about our future in relation to climate change. Such decisions, I am sure all in this room firmly believe, need to be taken in a human rights framework, and today’s discussion no doubt will contribute to that end.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last week, at the high-level United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York, the Secretary-General stressed that the stakes are very high and a failure to take decisive action in the face of climate change “would be morally inexcusable”. As he pointed out, “climate change links us more directly and dramatically than any other issue” and “national leaders must become global leaders to meet the needs of their own people.”

Since the current negotiation process was set in motion at the United Nations Climate Conference in Bali in 2007, the human dimensions of climate change and the consequences for individuals, especially the most vulnerable, have increasingly come into focus, and growing attention is now being paid to the human rights implications of climate change-related effects. When I addressed the Bali Conference as one of the last speakers in the plenary, it was clear from the reaction from the audience that human rights was a novel concern in the climate change community. Since then, we’ve made significant inroads.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has played a key role in stressing that climate change poses a threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights. Based on a study prepared by our Office, the Council in March this year adopted a resolution unequivocally recognizing that consequences of climate change have a range of implications for the enjoyment of human rights. The Council views will be made available to the States at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

United Nations human rights mechanisms have also paid increasing attention to this issue. For example, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women at its session last month adopted a statement on gender and climate change; and the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing prepared a thematic report on the impact of climate change of the right to housing for this year’s General Assembly, which she is due to present to the Assembly in late October.

Distinguished participants,

I believe that the study by our Office, the deliberations of the Human Rights Council and those of the United Nations human rights mechanisms provide a good starting point for further efforts to make more effective use of international human rights standards and principles in addressing the human impact of climate change.

Allow me to highlight some main points and findings of the OHCHR study, which is the result of extensive consultations with all stakeholders.

Our study takes as its starting point the scientific evidence of climate change-related impacts outlined, in particular, in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This report documents the range of adverse effects of rising global temperatures, how many of these effects are already being witnessed and how many of the least developed countries, and small island states, which have contributed least to global warming, will be worst affected.

Climate change is considered a contributing factor for the steep rise in frequency of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and heat waves. These and other effects, such as rising sea levels, droughts, increasing water stress, and the spread of tropical and vector born diseases, will only get worse. Importantly, the assessment report points to the fact that irrespective of action taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these adverse effects cannot be avoided in the short or medium term. Accordingly, apart from efforts to reduce and stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, a key challenge will be to assist people adapt to new life circumstances, while ensuring protection of their human rights.

The study looks at the data and outlines some of the specific rights which would be most directly affected by climate change-related impacts. In doing so, it highlights the implications of climate change for the rights to life, to health, to food, to safe and adequate drinking water, to health and to adequate housing.

In the light of such concrete evidence, we firmly believe that human rights must and can inform and deepen policy planning in the area of climate change adaptation and mitigation at international and national levels. Let me elaborate.

First, the human rights perspective moves us beyond the aggregate cost benefit analysis which tend to dominate in climate change debates, bringing into focus that the adverse effects of climate change are felt not only by States and economies, but also – and more fundamentally – by individuals and communities.

Second, human rights, focusing on the right of everyone to a dignified life and on the need to combat inequality and discrimination, bring into focus how climate change affects people differently – and consequently, how policy responses need to reflect such differences. Climate change effects exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, which are the consequences of such factors as discrimination, health status, access to knowledge and information. Certain groups, such as women, children and indigenous peoples, tend to be particularly vulnerable to climate change effects and risks. A human rights analysis draws attention to the need for a deeper analysis to identify who will be affected, and in what ways, both by climate change-related effects and by policies and measures to address climate change.

Third, the human rights perspective underlines the importance of individual agency and empowerment. In particular, human rights, including access to information, ability to participate in decision-making processes, access to education, adequate health services and housing, are critical elements of effective climate change adaptation.

In order to build the ‘climate resilience’ of individuals and reduce their vulnerability to climate change threats, policy makers must assess and understand the underlying causes of what make people vulnerable. Policy makers must also ensure that human rights impacts of policies and measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change are properly assessed and taken into account and that procedural rights (access to information, effective participation, and remedies) are provided for.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to highlight one last point made in the OHCHR study relating to States’ human rights obligations in the face of climate change-related threats.

As the study points out, States have a clear obligation under international human rights law to protect individuals within their jurisdiction against effects which could have been prevented. At the same time, it is clear that the root causes of climate change-related effects transcend national borders and lie beyond the effective control of any single State. As the Human Rights Council has noted, “climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution”.

While human rights law provides a strong framework for protection at the national level, States also have obligations relevant to their joint action internationally to deal with climate change. Importantly, under international human rights treaties – and under the United Nations Charter and internationally agreed development goals – States have committed to engage in international assistance and cooperation and to take joint and separate action to address global problems which threaten the realization of human rights. Based on these commitments and obligations, human rights must be a central objective of the international response to the climate change crisis.

In this context, and although human rights concerns have yet to be more firmly integrated into international climate change discussions, it is a step forward that the negotiating text for an Outcome of the December Copenhagen Conference includes wording from the recent Human Rights Council resolution, underlining that the adverse effects of climate change “have a range of direct and indirect implications for the full
and effective enjoyment of human rights” and that these effects “will be felt most acutely by those segments of the population who are already in vulnerable situations owing to such factors as geography, poverty, gender, age, indigenous or minority status and disability.” Equally, the current negotiating text states that States in their climate change adaptation measures should be guided by “the respect for, protection and promotion of fundamental human rights” as set out in the international human rights instruments.

While most of these human rights references remain in brackets and to be negotiated, they show how a new perspective have been introduced into what has traditionally been more State centric climate change debates. The human rights perspective adds legitimacy to efforts to ensure that a concern for the effects experienced by individuals and communities become central to the new climate change regime.

Distinguished participants,

Looking at the human rights implications of climate change clearly underlines why a failure to take decisive action against climate change is inexcusable. Indeed, human rights remind us that protecting individuals against the negative effects of climate change should be one of the ultimate goals of climate change negotiations.

I thank you for your attention.