Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Climate Change and Human Rights

On Friday 11 February 2011, the Dutch Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (NJCM), ICCO and Stand Up For Your Rights together organized a seminar on Climate Change and Human Rights. It took place at ICCO Headquarters in Utrecht, Netherlands. Below follows a brief impression of the seminar.

The seminar was concerned with the “human side” of climate change. The global response to climate change, negotiated at the climate summit in Copenhagen and the follow-up meeting in Cancún, is generally considered as not good enough. As the negotiations continue, large groups of people have to deal with the consequences and risks of climate change on a daily basis. Climate change directly affects the enjoyment of their fundamental rights, such as the right to life, water, food, health and property.

What is the added benefit of a human rights approach to climate change? What exactly are the rights holders, and, more importantly, who are the duty bearers? And what exactly are their responsibilities? These and other questions were the focus of the seminar "Climate Change and Human Rights. One year after Copenhagen, one month after Cancun: The Human Side of Climate Change ".

The keynote speaker was prof. Ruud Lubbers, currently a Minister of State of the Netherlands. He served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1982 and 1994. Between 2001 and 2005, he was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Other speakers were:


Prof. Lubbers reflected on the relationship between human rights and climate change. He talked about the rights-tradition, starting with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. He then explained how climate change and pollution became an issue, already in the seventies, and how the two have since come closer together.

Gert de Gans spoke about the CO2-footprint and the rights of the poor. He briefly introduced ICCO's Fair Climate Programme. He showed how (people in) developed nations can buy emission rights from developing nations, and how this money - and other voluntary contributions - can be invested in small projects in developing countries. NGO’s could serve as the “middle-man” in these transactions.

Subsequently, there were three workshops: the first was about women and children (this group was chaired by Sylvia Borren and Dr. Annelies Henstra); the second about indigenous peoples (Dr. Gerard Persoon and Leo van der Vlist), and the third about climate refugees (chaired by Isabelle Swerissen). In the last workgroup, the focus was on the legal definition of ‘refugee’, as used in the Refugee Convention. The big question was whether people crossing borders because of climate related incidents (natural disasters) could be defined as ‘refugees’ in the restricted, legal sense. The conclusion was that they could not. The potential consequences of including ‘climate refugees’ in the reach of the legal definition of ‘refugee’ was also discussed. (Political) refugees have a right to leave their country, but they are not entitled to be welcomed in another. At the same time, if a refugee manages to enter another country, he or she cannot be obliged to return to his homeland if he or she is likely to face prosecution and torture there. It was suggested that a similar way of reasoning could apply to climate refugees: that if the situation at home was life-threatening, it should not be permissible to send them home.

Then followed a final plenary session, in which the causal relationship between CO2-emissions and natural disasters was hotly disputed. The question of duty-bearers was also discussed. It is perhaps too easy to point to a select group of people and blame them for climate change, and to see the rest of the world as victims. In a way, all individuals contribute, and all individuals suffer from the consequences.

Jan van de Venis ended the day with a passionate speech about the human side of climate change. He stressed the responsibilities of the present generation to take action and build a better future today.

No comments: