This article was also reproduced in Japanese on the Amnesty International Japan homepage. To access, it please click the link below.
On October 8th 2021, the United Nations Human Right Council belatedly recognized a reality that manifold countries have consistently lived with for years. A reality that has been regrettably absent when we are spoken at by certain segments of the punditocracy and political class due to it being obfuscated as an issue for ‘polar bears and not people’. A reality that has too often been conflated with niche causes and life style branding.
While it has long been recognized by climate justice advocates and those living among the ravages of environmental despoliation, the human right to access a healthy environment had not been acknowledged as such since the effort to achieve it started in the 1990’s.
That was until two weeks ago, when a proposal submitted by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland to do just that was overwhelmingly adopted by 43 votes of out of a total of 47 member states. While Japan was one of four abstainers from the vote, and the proposal itself is not legally binding, this encouraging development has, as the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd exclaimed, ‘life changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more deaths every year’.
This decision was neither spontaneous nor inchoate. While committed, passionate and principled grass roots activism has indubitably helped midwife it, there has been increasing momentum towards this outcome through international legal channels throughout the 2010’s.
Starting in 2013, the case of Ioane Teitiota and his family in Kiribati outlined the impact of climate change on the legally sanctioned right to asylum. While the Teitiotas’ asylum application to New Zealand, which maintained that their island home had become uninhabitable due to crop failures and overcrowding, and its subsequent appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee was ultimately denied in 2020, the case opened the door for future claims of protection from environmentally inflicted human rights violations.
The connection between the environment and human rights was further emphasized by the ruling issued by the Dutch Supreme Court in 2019, which mandated that the government of that country was obliged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. The litigation that facilitated this ruling was based on the premise that failure to accomplish this target was an abrogation of Holland’s responsibilities under the European Convention on Human Rights.
While the outcome reached at the UN Human Rights Council a fortnight ago has been metamorphosing in a legal sense over the last decade, this decision also marks the amelioration of 70 years of international human rights treaties, as well as an unmistakable declaration concerning the relationship that exists between environmental desecration and human right rights violations. Man-made temperature rises, as well as the coastal flooding, drought, famine, extreme weather events, disease, and internal and cross border displacement that accompany them, will leave an enduring and devastating footprint upon the livelihoods, the hopes, the futures of countless human beings for generations to come. The maladies, disasters, tragedies and losses manifested in their wake will impinge upon the rights to life, adequate food, water, housing and clothing, good health (both mental and physical) as well as the right to seek asylum. All these rights have been enshrined in a plethora of international treaties and agreements which include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1947), the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) as well as its 1967 protocol.
However, giving legal sanction and superficial recognition to a right can merely be a reluctant and symbolic acquiescence by the forces of wealth, power and privilege to the marginalized, disempowered and dispossessed. Tangible solutions to avert the worst outcomes of the climate and biodiversity crises that confront us will not be exclusively forged through the fiat of a parliament or a committee. While legislative action is a component of a meaningful solution, the solution must be composed of action that is meaningful. In short, action that is enforceable, whose benefits are concretely observable, and is able to be empirically measured.
In this vein, COP26 should not be merely an arena for vacuous or abstract debate. The climate crisis is the greatest moral challenge of our time; and a long neglected one at that. COP26 will pose a question to those in attendance about whether they truly believe in the values of egalitarianism, fairness and non-discrimination they purport to hold. Our leaders are now ethically compelled to prevent what the American-Canadian journalist and activist, Naomi Klein has referred to as ‘climate barbarism’. This is an ideology in which the relative values of human lives are ranked so as to justify the monstrous discarding of swathes of humanity to maintain the opulent lifestyles of others. It is also an ideology which is heartbreakingly illustrated by the minimal total of greenhouse gas emissions from underdeveloped nations and low-lying island states in comparison to those from wealthy nations, and the damage that will be wrought upon the former under the worst-case climate change scenarios.
From COP26 and onwards, we can no longer accept a system that discriminately destroys some so that others may thrive; an idea that is the antithesis of human rights. We are in a struggle for a more equitable, more peaceful, more sustainable, more just, more inclusive, more optimistic and less discriminatory world, and our leaders best start acting like it. In light of the UNHRC’s watershed declaration and the aforementioned meeting in Glasgow, they now have a rendezvous with destiny. We implore them to make the most of the opportunity before them.