The phenomenon of human rights, its protection and its violation is one of the most vulnerable subjects prone to get affected by a number of factors. Be it a state of war or conflict between or within the states or bad governance on the part of any state, if it is attributed to old conservative cultural norms or traditions in some regions, then in others the blame is put on the strict/non-flexible religious practices. Another dynamic, a rather alarming one, which has huge implications for human rights in the contemporary era is the well acknowledged and well recognized phenomenon of climate change.
Anthropogenic climate change poses a great threat not only to the natural environment globally but also to the practice of human rights in our times. Climate change, contrary to common perception, is not a very recent phenomenon. The President of Maldives first took note of this climatic condition back in 1987 in the United Nations General Assembly and consequently drew attention of the international community towards it. Since then, despite many steps being taken on the forum of United Nations towards this direction in the form of Rio declaration, IPCC, Kyoto Protocol, UNFCCC and Paris agreement, no international human rights instrument guarantees the right to a safe and healthy environment.
Nonetheless, the inevitable linkage between human rights and climate change has been acknowledged by United Nations on a number of occasions. On March 28, 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted an unprecedented consensus resolution on human rights and climate change, explicitly recognizing the implications of climate change on human rights.
On March 25, 2009, HRC passed a second consensus resolution relating to climate change and human rights declaring that “climate change related effects have a range of implications both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights”.
Here it is pertinent to clarify that the linkage of human rights with environment and with climate change are two separate subjects. Environment, according to Oxford Advanced learner’s dictionary is connected to the natural condition in which people, animals, and plants live while climate change, according to Article 1 of UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), is defined as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere”. Thus, human rights violations in the wake of climate change cannot and must not be attributed to natural phenomenon but to human activities which intervene and disturb the natural ecosystem. In other words, one strong group of humans in the race of their development adversely affect the lives and living conditions of other groups of humans especially those who are already living under vulnerable conditions. Talk about bipolar divisions!
A cruel fact which adds to the severity of the situation is that the responsibility for climate change and the vulnerability to climate change have an inverse relationship, meaning that communities vulnerable to climate change are often those who are already lagging behind in the race of economic development as well as in areas concerning human rights mainly because they depend upon natural resources for their livelihood which are more prone to get affected by climate change while the countries responsible for this alarming phenomenon are the well-developed, rich countries which in the course of industrial and economic development contribute largely to the factors that lead to climate change. Perhaps this is why the United States of America despite claiming to be the champion of Human Rights argued against a human rights-based approach to climate protection calling it both “impractical and unwise”.
Human rights implications of climate change include the negative impact on certain human rights in a direct way while a number of others are impacted indirectly. The rights guaranteed by the international human rights instruments such as UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR, including the rights to life, adequate food, health, adequate housing, adequate standard of living, and self-determination are at stake due to this phenomenon. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), up to one billion people could face water shortages in Asia by the 2050s due to melted glaciers which will eventually lead to mass displacement of population both within and across borders, paving a path to further escalation of refugee crisis.
Keeping aside the rest of the affected human rights, if only the foremost of all the inalienable rights which is the right to life is studied, it is revealed that according to a report by the World Health Organization, there were 166,000 avoidable deaths in only the year 2000 that could be statistically associated with climate change. Unfortunately, Pakistan is also among those states which are most susceptible to climate change. The flash floods across the country in 2010 took numerous lives and caused unprecedented damage to the overall infrastructure of the country and posed a huge setback to the country’s economy. In Chitral District only, 36 innocent human lives were lost during the flash floods in the summer of 2015, let alone the damage caused to their major source of livelihood i.e. agricultural lands and other infrastructure.
Recently in April 2016, a climate change lawsuit Rabab Ali v. Federation of Pakistan has been filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan by a seven-year-old against violations of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan by virtue of climate change. This petition in itself is a milestone in the process of recognizing the deep and direct impact of climate change on human rights in the present scenario of Pakistan.
Pakistan, being a signatory of international human rights instruments as well as under its own constitution must immediately take the necessary and effective legislative and administrative measures to at least minimize the hazards of climate change upon the lives of Pakistani citizens, if not put a complete end to them.
As for the question of identification, monitoring and accountability of the actual culprit behind the phenomenon of climate change, no single state can be held liable as it involves multiple actors. However, if in any case a state could be held guilty of contributing to the damage then the issue of availability of a mechanism for gauging the liability and compensation still poses a big question mark to the International Human Rights Lawmakers.