Sixty years ago today, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone document created in the aftermath of unimaginable atrocities. This declaration, and the legal documents that stemmed from it, have helped us combat torture, discrimination and hunger. And now, this venerable document should guide us in the fight against one of the greatest challenges ever to face humankind: climate change.
As representatives from virtually every country are sitting at the negotiating table in Poznan, Poland, for the UN Conference on Climate Change, poor people are already coping with the impacts of global warming. From increasing droughts to increasing floods, from lower agricultural productivity to more frequent and severe storms, many rightly fear that things will only get worse. Their human rights – to security, health and sustainable livelihoods – are increasingly being threatened by changes to the earth's climate.
Indeed, the poorest who contributed the least to the problem of climate change are now bearing the brunt of the impacts. Ninety-seven per cent of deaths related to natural disasters already take place in developing countries. In South Asia, the 17 million people living on sandbanks in the river basins of Bangladesh could be homeless by 2030 as increasing Himalayan meltwater floods their homes. In Niger, changing rainfall patterns are contributing to increased desertification which, for the Tuareg and Wodaabe people, has caused massive losses of livestock and food insecurity. In South America, a loss of snow in the Andes in the next 15 to 20 years will pose a serious risk to the more than nine million people living in Lima, Peru's largest city.
But, as a new report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy on the links between climate change and human rights makes clear, the negative impacts on people of changes in climate do not always involve horrific headlines and images of hurricanes, floods or refugee camps. More commonly, they will be cumulative and unspectacular.
Those who are already poor and vulnerable are and will continue to be disproportionately affected. Incrementally, land will become too dry to till, crops will wither, rising sea levels will undermine coastal dwellings and spoil freshwater, livelihoods will vanish. Carbon emissions from industrialised countries have human and environmental consequences. As a result, global warming has already begun to affect the fulfillment of human rights, and to the extent that polluting greenhouse gases continue to be released by large industrial countries, the basic human rights of millions of the world's poor to life, security, food, health and shelter will continue to be violated.
Our shared human rights framework provides a basis for impoverished communities to claim protection of these rights. We must not lose sight of existing human rights principles in the tug and push of international climate change negotiations. A human rights lens reminds us there are reasons beyond economics and enlightened self-interest for states to act on climate change.
Because climate change presents a new and unprecedented threat to the human rights of millions, international human rights law and institutions must evolve to protect the rights of these peoples. But, most importantly, states must take urgent action to avoid more serious and actionable violations of human rights.
The principles of human rights provide a strong foundation for policy-making and these principles must be put at the heart of a global deal to tackle global climate change. Urgently cutting emissions must be done in order to respect and protect human rights from being violated by the future impacts of climate change, while supporting the poorest communities to adapt to already occurring climate impacts is the only remedy for those whose human rights have already been violated.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is worth remembering that climate change violates the declaration's affirmation that "everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which [their] rights and freedoms...can be realised".
We must now grasp the opportunity to create the kind of international order that the framers of the UDHR dreamed of – even in a radically changed global context they never imagined.
Mary Robinson is a former Irish president, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and an honorary president of Oxfam International