Remarks by Ambassador Henry L. Mac Donald at the UNITAR –YALE Conference on Environmental Governance and Democracy MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies Yale University New Haven, Connecticut May 10-11, 2008
11 May 2008 / 06:01
Remarks by Ambassador Henry L. Mac Donald at the UNITAR –YALE Conference on Environmental Governance and Democracy
MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies
New Haven , Connecticut
May 10-11, 2008
1. Good morning, First of all, I would like to thank Mrs. Colleen Thouez, Chief of the UNITAR Office in New York for making the arrangements for me, to speak here today about the link between climate change and human rights. Allow me also to congratulate the organizers of this Conference for putting together such an outstanding and comprehensive two-day program.
2. During this short presentation ---…. I believe that I have 10 to 15 minutes for my presentation. Right?.....---- I will talk about the climate change problem from the perspective of a Caribbean national.
3. First, I will briefly touch on the matter from the viewpoint of the most vulnerable among us, than I will say a view words on the international protection of human rights.
4. I will discuss the human dimension of climate change and finally share with you, very briefly some thoughts on how to focus the debate about climate change more directly to people or groups of people.
5. The issue of climate change is these days on top of the global political agenda. Proof of this fact is for instance the 3 day thematic debate organized by the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations from July 31 to August 2, 2007. Evidence of the increasing importance of this issue is also the fact that the Secretary General of the United Nations organized a High Level Meeting on this very topic on September 24th, one day before the start of the General Debate of the 62nd Session of the General Assembly.
6. Testimony for the significance of climate change is also the fact that the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. (former Vice President of the United States of America) “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.
7. Climate change has also caught the attention of the key Presidential candidates that are currently running for the highest political Office in the United States of America.
8. Although climate change is a global phenomenon, its consequences will not be evenly distributed. Scientists agree that developing countries and small island nations will be the first and hardest hit. For small coastal states and particularly those small island states in the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean, the dangers of climate change are immediate and threaten their very existence.
9. Their small size, remoteness, geographical dispersion, vulnerability to natural disasters, fragile ecosystems, low lying coasts, constraints on transportation and communication and for many limited freshwater supply, mean that they are extremely vulnerable to even the smallest changes to the global climate. Just as the integrity of many small states is threatened, so are the rights of their peoples to a safe and secure home and the enjoyment of their most basic and fundamental rights as human beings.
10. It is for that reason important to finally put people at the heart of the climate change discussions.
Evidence of global Warming
11. I will not elaborate at length about the existing evidence of this phenomenon since the majority of the academic community agrees that global warming is already happening.
12. In today’s world there exists the international consensus that instances of humiliation and impoverishment have to be measured against the norm to guarantee the fundamental rights of every human person. By birthright, people are considered bearers of rights for protecting their dignity, regardless of their nationality or cultural affiliation.
13. These rights are equal and all human beings enjoy the same rights, they are inalienable, they can not be forfeited and they are universal.
14. Especially in an age of globalization, it is increasingly the discourse of human rights that sets the terms of reverence for disputes over power and its victims.
15. Before the Second World War it was just states that could claim rights. The rights of persons (Human Rights) where first recognized at the international level only with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights almost 60 years ago in 1948.
16. This Declaration gave rise to the codification of the basic political rights of each and every individual in the world vis a vis state power. Subsequently the juridical revolution made further progress with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The three aforementioned instruments are nowadays been revered to as the International Bill of Human Rights.
17. In the eighties and nineties a human rights advocacy revolution occur globally bringing advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the forefront, which put various states in the dock for their violations of basic human rights. In the name of human rights, numerous campaigns began the interference in the internal affairs of states, which resulted into the United Nations establishing an instrument of its own (namely the High Commissioner of Human Rights) to investigate excessive internal sovereignty claims on the part of various states.
18. The international diplomatic and academic community nowadays agrees that when human beings do not have the basic capability to support themselves with dignity, their human rights are under threat. Most societies regard as basic requirements: the capability to obtain adequate nourishment; to avoid unnecessary illness and premature death; to have adequate housing; to earn one’s own livelihood, to be assured of physical safety; to have equal access to justice; to appear in public without feeling ashamed and to take part in the life of a community.
19. International law has recognized that Governments constitute the prime duty bearers in human rights law. Indeed securing human rights should be the first priority of every government as Article 1 of the Vienna UN Conference on Human Rights has affirmed.
Human Dimension of Global Climate Change
20. It is by now crystal clear that the phenomenon of climate change is way more than ecological, more than scientific, more than economic, more than diplomatic, more than security, and more than political it is fundamentally a human issue, as it threatens human survival and prosperity.
21. The fundamental correlation between climate change and human rights is essentially that everyone has the right to live in a safe, secure, healthy, clean and sustainable environment.
22. If such a right is affected by human induced activities that result into climate change, it will negatively impact on a range of other fundamental human rights including among others: the right to self-determination; the right to take part in cultural life; the right to use and enjoy property; the right to social security; the right to an adequate standard of living satisfactory for health and well being; the right to clean, potable or fresh water; the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the right to development and even; the right to life itself.
23. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson linked the issue of climate change and human rights outstandingly in a lecture at the Chatham House in London by the following statement (and I quote): “Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states our birthright: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. However it is here that an issue of justice is raised, as it is poor communities who are suffering most from the effects of climate change, and it is rich countries that are contributing most to the problem” (end quote). The human rights approach, emphasizing the equality of all people, is a direct challenge to the power imbalances that allow the perpetrators of climate change to continue to be unchecked. And the human rights framework gives us the legal and normative grounds for empowering the poor to seek redress”.
Right to a Healthy Environment
24. Although the close relationship between human rights and the environment has been widely acknowledged, the existence and the need for a right to a healthy environment (or an environment of a certain quality) remain controversial at the international level, because some scholars and international politicians are hesitant to talk about the reality of environmental human rights.
25. That said, many national constitutions either state the principle that an environment of a certain quality constitutes a human right or impose environmental duties upon the State. Such provisions often define the desired environment in general terms with adjectives such as decent, natural, clean, healthy or safe. A significant number of decisions of national courts have also identified environmental harm to individuals or communities as violations of the rights to health, to life, food, water or housing.
26. At the regional level, “the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights” provides that all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development (Article 24). The Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“Protocol of San Salvador ”) recognizes the right to live in a healthy environment and demands that States Parties promote the protection, preservation, and improvement of the environment (Article 11). The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters provides for the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being.
27. Notwithstanding all these developments, however, the reality still remains that no international treaty –either in the field of human rights or the environment – recognizes a right to a healthy environment as such.
Environmental Human Rights According to Public International Law
28. Before concluding with some key thoughts that will be important in going forward with this specific issue, it is vital to briefly touch on the normative framework regarding the link between the enjoyment of human rights and the environment as recognized and enshrined in public international law.
29. The foundation for linking human rights and environmental protection was established in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration in its declaration that man has a fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.
30. Ten years later, the World Charter on Nature explicitly referred to the right to access to information and the right to participate in environmental decision-making. In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly recalled, in its resolution 45/94, the language of the Stockholm Declaration, stating that all individuals are entitled to live in an environment adequate for their health and well-being.
31. The 1992 Rio Declaration acknowledged the right to access environmental information and public participation in environmental decision-making.
32. Some international human rights treaties also explicitly address the linkages between the protection of the environment and the enjoyment of human rights. For example the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recognizes that the enjoyment of human rights depends, inter alia, on a decent environment, and ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples also provides for the protection of the environment of indigenous and tribal peoples.
33. In this connection, it is noteworthy to point out that the International human rights instruments adopted before the 70’s – notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the two International Covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights – do not explicitly refer to the protection of the natural environment among the preconditions for the enjoyment of the substantive rights that they recognize.
34. Part of the explanation for this omission is that the environment was not a big issue for the international community at the time. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights -which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) by State Parties has attempted to address this gap by interpreting the right to health, enshrined in this International Covenant, as encompassing the underlying determinants of health, such as healthy environmental conditions.
I Climate perturbations are likely to be superimposed on economic insecurity. As a direct consequence, climate impacts are at times likely to aggravate the living conditions of people up to the point where their basic rights are in jeopardy. It is for this reason that climate impacts may basically turn in to a matter of environmental human rights.
II While science and economics still dominate the ongoing climate change discussions academically and at the United Nations, new reports already warns of other serious consequences to global warming related events, such as increased conflicts and food security issues in vulnerable areas. Combating climate change will undoubtedly be a key international policy issue of the 21 century.
III Discussing climate change and its impacts from a human rights or humanitarian perspective will shift the focus of the debate more directly to individuals or groups of people, and mainly on how climate change affects their lives as human beings, women, children, elderly persons, migrants, indigenous or tribal peoples etc. Along with the human factor, the human rights approach will also introduce a unique accountability framework towards the developed nations with regard to human induced climate perturbation.
I think I will stop here. I thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer your questions.