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A human rights approach to tackling climate change

Climate change poses a direct threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights. The Poznań Climate Change Conference, from 1 to 12 December, should take into account the human rights impacts of climate change and protect the people whose lives are most adversely affected.

The Poznań Conference aims to agree on a plan of action and programmes of work for the final year of negotiations in the run up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, December 2009.

As the world marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2008, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay points out that a wide range of universally recognized rights, such as the right to food, to adequate housing and water, and indeed the right to life itself, are under direct threat as a result of climate change.

“The consequences of calamitous weather conditions are already visible in many parts of the world. A human rights approach compels us to look at the people whose lives are most adversely affected,” the High Commissioner told the 20th Forum on Global Issues in October.

“It provides the legal rationale and grounds to advocate the integration of human rights obligations into policies and programmes countering the negative effects of environmental challenges,” she added.

Expressing concern about the human rights impact of climate change, the Human Rights Council in March mandated the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct an analytical study on the subject. The Council will consider the study next March and make it available to the Copenhagen conference.

“The OHCHR study could be a powerful instrument to change the perception about climate change and increase the pressure for a strong outcome at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009,” Martin Frick, Deputy Director of Global Humanitarian Forum, a non-profit foundation, told an October consultation meeting organized by OHCHR in preparation for the study.

Climate change is already affecting the well-being and security of human persons and their effective enjoyment of human rights, in both developed and developing countries and across all cultures and boundaries.

While climate change affects everyone, it will hit the poorest and the most marginalized groups the hardest. Those who are already in a situation of vulnerability because of factors such as age, gender, and socio-economic status, will be disproportionally affected. This underlines the importance of effective human rights guarantees to reduce vulnerability in the face of climate change.

“Women and children are disproportionately affected by climate change-related impacts. The impacts are a reflection of social inequalities and a failure to implement basic rights of peoples,” said Kimberly Gable-Payne, Senior Advisor, UNICEF, at the consultation meeting.

Climate change therefore should be addressed in a way that is fair and just. It is a global phenomenon that requires global action.

John H. Knox, Senior Advisor of the Centre for International Environmental Law, a non-profit organization, told the OHCHR meeting that international climate change negotiations must meet the standards prescribed by human rights law.

“An agreement must provide both for the reduction of greenhouse gases to levels that will not interfere with human rights of those vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and for assistance to adapt to changes that cannot be avoided, which would otherwise harm their human rights,” he said.

December 2008

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