Human Rights, or Human Wrongs?

The world is now meeting in Poland to tackle global warming

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Yesterday, Erika wrote about negotiations to reduce global warming from deforestation and related activities, which contribute 20% of all human-emitted greenhouse gases. Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document for modern-day protection of fundamental human rights around the world. Today, the two issues came together in a shameful fashion and, unfortunately, the United States played a major role.

A decade ago, the effects climate change on human beings were poorly recognized. Now, however, the relationship between a changing climate and human rights is gaining acceptance. Just a few days ago, for example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recognized that climate change threatens "a wide range of universally recognized rights, such as the right to food, to adequate housing and water, and indeed the right to life itself."

Earthjustice is proud of this recognition, because we were the first to draw the connection between climate change and human rights.

Seven years ago, we began working to defend the lives and culture of the Inuit people from threats posed by climate change. The Inuit live in the Arctic, where snow and ice serve as their highways, their grocery stores, and even their emergency shelters. As the snow and ice melt, the Inuit are losing their food, their homes, their health, and their lives. In a first-of-its-kind human rights petition, Earthjustice helped the Inuit explain to the world how climate change is melting away the very foundations of their culture.

These threats are not limited to the Inuit. Rising seas threaten the residents of small island nations that may disappear under the seas. South American and Himalayan communities are losing their only sources of freshwater as mountain glaciers melt, while intruding seas make groundwater on which coastal communities depend salty. Millions of people in low-lying countries like Bangladesh are the victims of increasingly severe floods. Because these and other impacts are felt most strongly by communities in developing countries, those countries have rightly insisted that adaptation be a key element of any climate agreement. But developed countries have all but ignored that request here in Poznan.

Unfortunately, it is not only climate change itself that threatens human rights. Some of the proposed solutions are also problematic. One of those is the proposal to create new incentives to "reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation," which around here goes by the acronym "REDD." Now as Erika explained yesterday, reducing these emissions is a good thing. But how it is done makes a big difference.

All over the world, indigenous and other communities depend on forests for their livelihoods. Creating financial and other incentives for forest protection creates pressure to commercialize forests, often marginalizing the local communities that have in many cases been proven to be the best stewards of the land. Already there are examples of people being forced off of their forest lands to make way for biofuel projects or for forest management projects aimed at obtaining valuable carbon credits. A REDD agreement that does not recognize these threats could be devastating to these communities and could undermine decades-long efforts to recognize their rights to live on and use lands they have occupied sometimes for millennia.

For that reason, many people here are working to ensure that any REDD agreement recognizes the rights and concerns of forest-dependent peoples. Progress was being made until today, when New Zealand, supported by the United States, Canada and Australia, succeeded in removing the words "peoples" and "rights" from draft REDD text under negotiation. According to one source, the US negotiators excused their action on the ground that the US constitution does not recognize indigenous right and that, if such rights were included in a REDD agreement, US Indians "would use it against us." (This follows on the United States’ action last year, when it was one of only three countries to vote against UN adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.)

This conduct is shameful, but perhaps tomorrow, the rest of the world will honor the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by reinstating protections for indigenous and other forest-dependent peoples in the REDD agreement.

From 1996-2024, Martin Wagner led the International program, specializing in taking corporations to court for practices that violate international human rights.