Yesterday, we (Isabel and Jess – the two lawyers of the group) sat in on a side event entitled ‘Recognising and protecting human rights within the Copenhagen agreement’. As the talk unfolded, it hit us just how significant this issue is. It is so obvious, yet seems to somehow have eluded the general concerns surrounding climate change.
The SIDS (small island developing states) have, along with numerous others, been campaigning to get realistic emission and temperature targets out of the negotiations here at Copenhagen. Yet what will happen if these ambitious targets are not achieved?
We saw from Kiribati’s presentation the devastating effects that sea-level rise will have on their home – one of the first things to go will be their freshwater supply – thus rendering the island uninhabitable within a matter of years. This then raises the issue of relocation, and what the rights of those who are forced out of their homes will be, both in the area they are relocated to, and over the land they are relocated from. They cannot be considered as ‘refugees’ since refugees are seen as temporarily relocating, with a view to moving home at some point. Those affected by climate change are leaving their homes knowing they will never return. Inhabitants of the Pacific Islands are already relocating – both internally to other islands and externally to mainland.
Why then is the issue of human rights only now coming to light?
As was explained in yesterday’s meeting, there were grave concerns among the SIDS that, had the process of relocation been started earlier, pressure to reach ambitious emission targets may have been taken off developed countries.
The current situation at COP15 where 350ppm and 1.5°C are the key targets may not have been pushed for, had there been a ‘solution’ to the rising seas faced by SIDS. It is therefore extremely important that Human Rights are brought to the forefront of both peoples’ minds and discussions here at COP15.
One reason why the idea of incorporating human rights into any outcome of COP15 is being heavily opposed by some countries is that human rights are legal rights – thus they would inevitably create a binding legal agreement (as opposed to a political non-binding one).
Yet the notion of considering human rights has also been praised, with many claiming that it shows the real life effect of climate change, directing attention to the most vulnerable-empowering and strengthening their voices.
The face of climate change is the people that are affected.
Yet these people have no power.
One stark example is the speed at which globalisation is negatively impacting indigenous people. Vast areas of land belong to indigenous people yet they are excluded from discussions regarding uses of this land. Indigenous people cannot be continually sidelined and made invisible. Human rights in the ‘Copenhagen convention’ are not optional – they are a necessity.
It is the only way for the most vulnerable people to get recognition and protection. The Doctrine of Human Rights brings together all people from all places. These are simple principles agreed by UN yet they are not getting into the documents in this UN process.
And even if these rights are recognised, how will those affected by climate change be able to enforce them? Inhabitants of island states cannot sue the rising sea levels! Yet it would be near-impossible for an individual from a developing country to hold a state responsible for their loss.
There is evidently a long way to go.
One thing which people should bear in mind is that an endangered atmosphere is common ground for all of us, but more so is our humanity.