Why climate change is a matter of human rights

One year after Haiyan, Teresita, with no money but with a handful of prayers, dared to travel from Samar to Manila in search of a job.

Her house is a few kilometers away from San Juanico bridge, the bridge connecting Samar and Leyte, where Haiyan made landfall. Her house, along with her family’s small coconut plantation, was wiped away when the water drowned the city.

In Olkaria, Naivasha, Kenya, the Maasai indigenous people have been evicted to make way for a geothermal power plant, a clean energy project. Similarly, in western Kenya, forest-dependent Sengwer indigenous peoples have been accused of deforestation and wer also evicted from the Embobut Forest.

Ties between land and womb

“Whenua”, the Maori word for land, also means placenta. There is a tradition in Tuvalu where women who give birth bury the whenua and the “pito (umbilical cord) of the baby and plant a tree on top, signifying the close relationship between the child and the land of their birth.

This is why the people of Tuvalu, unlike their neighbors in Kiribati and Fiji, are hesitant to relocate and leave their land despite rising waters: their land is their culture, their land is their language.

Human rights hanging by a thin thread

There are many cases of human rights violations linked to climate change, and countries like the Philippines and Mexico are currently fighting tooth and nail at the Paris climate negotiations to ensure that human rights stay part of the resulting climate agreement. But human rights is hanging on a very thin thread, as Saudi Arabia tries to kill the language out of the agreement.

The Conference of Parties (COP) 21 is the biggest climate negotiation event in history, aiming to create a global and legally binding agreement to solve the climate crisis.

One of the key issues in this negotiations is human rights. Saudi Arabia has been blocking this from the climate agreement in past negotiations but has become more aggressive in doing so with only 3 days before COP21 ends.

‘A poison pill’

“Saudi Arabia put a poison pill inside the text to kill human rights,” said a source inside the negotiations who wants to stay anonymous.

“We all know Saudi Arabia doesn’t want human rights inside the text so they proposed to put in ‘rights of occupied territories,’ knowing it will not be accepted by countries like Israel and the US. This is not to say that occupied territories have no rights, but it is a political statement that should be dealt elsewhere. We know the intentions of Saudi Arabia as they have been trying to block human rights in the negotiations,” the source added.

A row between Israel, US, and Saudi Arabia happened on Thursday as Saudi Arabia insisted on putting “occupied territories” as part of the agreement. Israel has occupied territories consisting of Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip so Israel’s non-support of ‘rights of occupied territories’ is not surprising.

Government in fear of citizens

Earlier this week, Norway was also hesitant about supporting human rights as a legally binding agreement of the UNFCCC, fearful that their citizens might sue the government the way citizens in the Netherlands did: a total of 886 Dutch citizens sued their government for “knowingly contributing” to breaching the maximum target of 2 degrees of global warming. A court in The Hague ruled in favor of the citizens, ordering the Dutch government to cut its emissions by at least 25% within 5 years.

Countries who have been pushing for human rights inside the negotiations remain positive but vigilant.

“We are being vigilant about it because we are not sure it will survive,” Antonio La Viña, Philippine negotiator, said.

Climate change and human rights

The issue of human rights in connection to climate change has only become a strong issue in the most recent years of climate negotiations.

In 2005, the Inuits brought the topic to the fore, but no decision was made. Ecuador first proposed the principle of human rights to be included in the climate agreement in 2013. Mexico took the lead in COP20 in Lima with support from the negotiating group AILAC. The Philippines has also become vocal and has been pushing for human rights in the negotiations.

Climate change has long ceased to be just an environmental issue, because it impacts people the most.

Ultimately, climate change is about individuals, families, and communities whose lives, cultures, and traditions are now at the risk of being lost. Including human rights in the climate agreement would ensure litigation for any climate related human rights violation. It would also give harmed communities a strong legal basis to have restitution.


This article was originally published at GMA News, Open Democracy, and Interaksyon