Mary Robinson at the UN in September 2018 (Photo: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of its times. It was born in the aftermath of World War II and the shadow of the Holocaust, and it was drafted mostly by liberal-minded Westerners. But its contents have stood the test of time, and it has been adopted and referenced in many UN Resolutions and Declarations over the last 70 years. Its fundamental principles remain strong enough, and flexible enough, to apply equally to the new challenges that our planet and peoples face today like climate change, as they did to attempts to exterminate another people or deny their equality.
Human rights are there to protect all of us, and particularly the most vulnerable amongst us. This is why it is so critical that we view climate change as a human rights issue. Who is more vulnerable than those who risk losing their ability to grow food to feed their families, those who face daily health problems due to fossil fuel emissions, those whose very countries are at risk of disappearing and are forced to leave their homes and ancestral lands for a precarious future as a displaced person?
I would like to encourage every vulnerable country and in particular the forty-eight countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum to insist on telling loudly and clearly how their human rights are being undermined by climate change and to demand urgent action on this.
"Human rights are there to protect all of us, and particularly the most vulnerable amongst us."
Climate change however was not on policymakers’ agendas [when the UDHR was drafted], and fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas were seen as integral parts of countries’ development and growth strategies. However, we do now know that fossil fuel companies themselves were aware at least four decades ago of the environmental damage posed by their activities – just as the tobacco industry knew about the health risks posed by smoking but sought to systematically deny and obscure the evidence. So there has always been a justice, equity and human rights aspect to climate policy; fortunately, today there is also much more clarity and acceptance of fundamental scientific facts.
A little personal note; when I became High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office was preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So I want to wish Michelle Bachelet all the best for the seventieth anniversary. One good thing that happened was that I got the Guinness Book of Records for the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during that year became the most translated document in the world. And being Irish I hung that Guinness Book of Records award with great pleasure. But now I have to confess that I came late to understanding the link between climate change and human rights. I didn’t make a single significant speech on climate change when I was High Commissioner during my five years because it was another part of the UN that was dealing with it. And I was in my silo for human rights and gender etc.
It was when I did work on the ground in Africa on economic and social rights that I became aware of how significantly African countries were already affected in 2003, 2004 and on by the impacts, the negative impacts of climate change.
"Climate change is a direct cause of the denial of those fundamental equal rights to which all states – at least nominally – subscribe."
When the UDHR was adopted, the General Assembly consisted of 58 states. Today there are more than three times as many, thanks mainly to decolonisation and liberation struggles. Most of these new, developing states bear little or no responsibility for causing climate change. Yet they are the most vulnerable and are already suffering the heaviest consequences. We need to view this not fatalistically, as an inevitable consequence of an unequal economic order, but with anger and urgency as a massive human rights violation.
As the preamble to the Universal Declaration makes clear, all members of the human family are entitled to “equal and inalienable rights”. This is the bedrock on which its articles rest. That preamble also speaks of “freedom from fear and want”. As has been heard many times in recent years, climate change is a direct cause of the denial of those fundamental equal rights to which all states – at least nominally – subscribe. It is also a prime driver of fear and scarcity. Vulnerable groups in all our societies, particularly women, the poor, and the most marginalised suffer the most.
Article 25 of the UDHR, which refers to the right to an adequate standard of living in terms of food, clothing, housing, medical care and security, is directly relevant to climate change.
Article 13 on freedom of movement and residence, also allows people to think about the concerns now of some Pacific Ocean states whose people inhabit low-lying atolls threatened by rising sea waters. For these people, climate change is an existential crisis; if their islands are submerged, how will all their other human rights be respected? Who will offer them sanctuary, and how will their migration status be recognised and respected?
Linked to this are Articles 19 and 20, which provide for freedoms of opinion and expression, coupled with peaceful assembly and association. Without them we would not have had the peoples’ movements which have done so much globally to challenge powerful vested interests and galvanize governments into action – but none of us can afford to be complacent amid the worsening climate for human rights globally.
"Climate change denial is not just ignorant, it is malign, it is evil and amounts to an attempt to deny human rights to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet."
In some quarters, unfortunately, the UDHR is today falling into disregard – and here I am not only referring to authoritarian or undemocratic states, but to those that had previously held the torch highest. This, then, should be the moment when we all rededicate ourselves to the collective responsibility our forebears took on in 1948.
I believe that climate change denial is not just ignorant, it is malign, it is evil and amounts to an attempt to deny human rights to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. The evidence about the effects of climate change is incontrovertible, and the moral case for urgent action indisputable. The time for talking is over; if we do not act now, and fast, future generations will never forgive us.
Watch Mary Robinson's remarks:
On 26 September, Mary Robinson joined a high-level event to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Following opening remarks from UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, Mary Robinson highlighted the role and relevance of the UDHR in protecting the vulnerable against the effects of climate change. The event was hosted by the governments of France, Germany, Costa Rica, South Korea and Senegal during the 73rd UN General Assembly.