“Climate Change and Human Rights”, Address by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol
3-14 December 2007
Bali, Indonesia

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, I am very pleased and honoured to speak at this historic conference.

In the lead up to this momentous gathering in Bali, the world heard extensively about the grave threat that climate change poses on the environment and economic growth. Much less was heard about the human dimension of climate change. Notable and important exceptions have been the latest UNDP Human Development Report, which elaborates the human impact of climate change, and the Male Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change, adopted at the meeting of Small Island Developing States in the Maldives last month. The message has also been heard in many statements made in this hall during the past two days. Together, they underscore the need for strategies to deal with climate change, whether in terms of adaptation or mitigation, to incorporate the consequences for humans, as individuals and communities. Furthermore, some suggest, as I certainly would, that the existing body of human rights norms and principles offers a solid foundation for responsible and effective thinking and action in this regard.

There are many predictions that global warming could result in hundreds of millions of people suffering from hunger, malnutrition, water shortages, floods, droughts, heat stress, diseases triggered by extreme weather events, loss of livelihoods and permanent displacement. These human consequences are already visible and real in many corners or the world. The human rights approach compels us to look at the people whose lives are most adversely affected and to urge governments to integrate their human rights obligations into policies and programs to deal with the climate change as well as to the international community to assist in this process.

Indeed, climate change poses a direct threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights, such as the rights to life, food, adequate housing or water. Procedural human rights, including access to information or justice and participation in decision-making processes may also become increasingly relevant in a context of climate change, particularly for those being affected by it.

The way climate change impacts on the lives of individuals is influenced by factors such as poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships. The poor - whether in industrialized or developing countries - are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In effect, they are already placed in a situation of discrimination and inequality when it comes to the ability to adapt to climate change and to mitigate its negative consequences. Small-scale farmers in Africa and Asia; those who do not have access to safe-drinking water, sanitation, healthcare or social security; or slum dwellers living in informal settlements located in hazardous zones will suffer earliest and disproportionately the consequences of climate change.

Women are also likely to be more severely affected then men by climate change. The traditional female roles in many societies – such as collecting water– are largely dependent on weather conditions. In many parts of the world, especially the poorest, women are overrepresented in agriculture, a sector that will be hardest hit by climate change. Indigenous peoples are also among the groups that could be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Emerging evidence suggests that the livelihoods and cultural identities of indigenous peoples of North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific are already being threatened by the impact of climate change.

As climate change will inevitably affect the enjoyment of human rights, safeguarding of human rights should be a key consideration in efforts to address the impact of climate change. International human rights law imposes several obligations on States that are relevant to addressing human vulnerabilities to climate change. These include the obligation to provide better housing, located away from hazardous zones; improved access to sanitation, safe-drinking water and healthcare; access to adequate food; effective participation in planning and decision-making; accountability; as well as access to information and justice.

Governments will find it harder to meet these obligations, as resources are taken up by demands to meet the environmental challenges and risks posed by climate change. This is all the more the reason to integrate the human rights dimension into strategic thinking about mitigation and adaptation to climate change for optimal investment of resources in the long run.
Ladies and gentlemen,

Most of the work on climate change has to date focused on mitigation and adaptation strategies to address its causes and consequences to the environment. More recently, the promotion of sustainable development and poverty reduction have greatly expanded the debate. The next step in to bring in the human dimension.

A human rights perspective shifts the focus more directly to individuals and to the effect of climate change on their lives. Along with the human factor, human rights also introduce an accountability framework that is an essential element of the promotion and protection of human rights itself , by holding governments, the duty-bearers accountable to reducing the vulnerability of their citizens to global warming and assisting them in adapting to the consequences. A focus on human rights also means that the views of those who will be disproportionately affected by climate change – the poor, vulnerable and marginalized - must have to be taken into account in responses devised to address the causes and consequences of global warming.

Climate change carries complex and technical questions related to the environment, science, economics and development. But looking at the human impact of global warming also raises important challenges related to equality, non-discrimination, access to information, access to justice and other core principles of human rights. These considerations should be integrated in the vision leading up to and in the post Kyoto era after 2012.

Next year, 2008, marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Earlier this week, the Secretary-General, with the assistance of OHCHR, launched a year-long advocacy campaign to deliver to every corner of the world the message of “dignity and justice for all”, the core theme and common thread of the rich body international human rights norms and practices that the Universal Declaration has inspired during the past six decades. As part of the advocacy, elaborating the linkage between climate change and human rights should be a vital undertaking of all concerned. OHCHR stands ready to be partner in the process.
Thank you.