By Fiona Koza
Today (December 10) is International Human Rights Day. This date is significant because it marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. The UDHR came about in response to the atrocities committed during World War II and lays out globally accepted principles related to human rights. For example, Article 5 of the UDHR states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; Article 19 ensures that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”; and Article 26 asserts “Everyone has the right to education.”
As you can see, the principles remain as relevant now as they were 61 years ago.
Back in 1948, war, poverty, discrimination, and injustice were all too familiar concepts. Climate change was not. But even though the UDHR authors were not aware of the threat posed by climate change, the declaration contains a number of important human rights principles that are very relevant to the issue. Negotiators who are attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, this week and next would do well to reread the UDHR to remind themselves of the rights guaranteed to all human beings and consider the threat that climate change poses to the realizations of those rights.
Amnesty International, a human rights organization with 2.2 million members worldwide, is concerned about the link between climate change impacts (such as sea level rise and increased heat waves, drought, and cyclones) and the ability to realize a range of human rights. Amnesty recognizes that states’ failure to act effectively to curb climate change could result in widespread violations of the right to life, right to health, right to water, right to food, and the right to housing. Water shortages and decreased crop yields in some of the poorest regions of the world, to take just two examples, would undermine the rights of millions of people.
Government negotiators in Copenhagen need to ensure that the policies they adopt are firmly rooted in a human rights analysis of the legal obligations of states. This means that states need to take prompt and adequate action to confront climate change. It also means that the climate change policies themselves must ensure human rights protection. For example, climate change policies must not be discriminatory, particularly of the most vulnerable people. And the right to peacefully protest against government action or inaction in relation to climate change is a crucial safeguard that must be respected and protected.
This International Human Rights Day, you can help protect human rights by participating in the world’s biggest letter writing event, Write for Rights. You could also join millions of people in signing a pledge urging governments to make a global climate deal in Copenhagen that is fair, ambitious, and binding.
Fiona Koza is a campaigner for business and human rights at Amnesty International Canada. She is participating in the Copenhagen conference this week.