Not Waving But Drowning: Climate Change event at the UN Human Rights Council

By Paula Mendez Keil and Kate Donald

On 13th September, the Geneva Missions of the Maldives and Ireland sponsored a high-level Human Rights Council side-event on Human Rights and Climate Change. With an illustrious panel of speakers including Mary Robinson and the President of the Maldives, the event was unsurprisingly well-attended (not just for the free sandwiches). It proved to be a fruitful discussion on the impact of climate change, especially on the most vulnerable: women, indigenous peoples and the poor. The threat that climate change poses to the rights to life, food, health, and adequate housing, to name a few, is now well acknowledged. The link has been made in two Human Rights Council Resolutions, as well as in the work of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, international financial institutions, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, building up to a formal recognition of the importance of human rights in the current climate change negotiating text, the Cancun Agreements. However, real constructive action has not been forthcoming, as illustrated by the deadlock on technology transfer.

H.E. Mr. Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Republic of Maldives;
H.E. Mrs. Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland;
Ms. Kyung-Wha Kang, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights;
Dr. Stephen Humphreys, Lecturer at the London School of Economics, former ICHRP Research Director;
H.E. Mr. G. Corr, Ambassador at the Permanent Mission of Ireland.

Of particular interest was the impassioned and candid analysis of the imminent threat of climate change by the President of the Republic of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. His sense of urgency is unsurprising given the Maldives faces a literally existential threat from rising sea levels: predictions state that by the end of this century the Maldives may cease to be a functioning state. (Nasheed and his cabinet held an underwater meeting in 2009 to highlight their cause.) Memorable among President Nasheed’s comments regarding the need for green energy and sustainable development was his statement that among the biggest challenges he faces are in persuading his citizens and others that development should not be measured in tall buildings, but rather as something that happens to people.

Of course, climate change is already causing significant suffering and dramatic upheavals, including forced migration and displacement. The plight of not only the Maldives but also the Carteret islands (part of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea) were highlighted in this meeting, as well as Bangladesh (where 30 million are predicted to be displaced from coastal regions by 2050). Bangladesh was also used as an example to highlight the urgency of adaptation measures: former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson spoke of flying over miles and miles of (former) paddy fields, still saline from 2007’s Cyclone Sidr. The land is not useless; but the locals have to be aided to adapt from their former practice of growing rice to other methods of farming, for example crab fattening.

Mary Robinson, who champions these issues through her Foundation on Climate Justice, discussed the economic, gender and political power asymmetries that are so often at the heart of the problem. The 50 poorest nations are responsible for less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions, yet find themselves suffering most heavily. It is estimated that 1.4 billion people in the world still have no access to electricity, while 2.7 billion continue to cook their meals on firewood or animal dung, increasing not only carbon emissions but the likelihood of diseases and health related problems.

One of the most significant points of the discussion was the importance of a democratic process in effectively tackling climate change adaptation and mitigation, especially in ensuring that the needs of vulnerable groups are addressed in a transparent and equitable manner and international aid and local resources are used responsibly. The devastation that is occurring in the horn of Africa (at least 28,000 children have died of starvation in Somalia this summer), with 8 consecutive summers measured as the hottest in regional history, was flagged as a clear result of climate change, combined with a disastrous political situation and the lack of adequate and timely humanitarian relief.

Some thought-provoking points were made by Dr. Stephen Humphreys (author of the upcoming ICHRP report on climate technology and human rights; a summary is available), on the current impasse on technology transfer, partly due to a (distracting, he argued) concern for intellectual property rights. Technology transfer is a fundamental pillar in every climate change agreement: poorer countries are not bound by any emission targets until it is effective. It is therefore crucial that we move ahead on this point: Dr. Humphreys stressed the importance of international cooperation and the obligations for developed countries to effectively transfer their know-how to developing ones, suggesting that using human rights law and principles may help to break the stalemate. He reiterated that a continued delay in implementing technology policies is ultimately perpetuating human rights violations around the world.

Further readings:

ICHRP (2011)
Climate Technology Policy and Human Rights: Protecting Rights in a Climate-Constrained World

Project - Executive Summary


ICHRP (2008)
Climate Change and Human Rights - A Rough Guide
Project - Report - Summary




About the Author:

Kate Donald is Research Fellow at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.


Paula Mendez Keil is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She is currently completing a Master’s in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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