The human rights perspective to climate change; lessons from the supertyphoon Haiyan

By Mugisha Moses

As world’s nations were preparing for yet another COP meeting in the Polish capital Warsaw, typhoon Haiyan was in its advanced stages to hit the Philippines. And when it did, Tacloban, Leyte, Cebu and other towns are likely to take years to rebuild.

Like the article I read on the Time magazine website science section that scientists can’t yet find a clear signal between global warming and the killer tropical storms like Haiyan, the coloration between climate change and human rights has not been fully explored especially in the Developing world.

Although the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR) and the subsequent International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR) as well as the International Covenant on Social Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) have been signed or adopted by most world sovereign states, there adoption seems to have been made with less anticipation of climate change. After all, at the time, what seemed to the biggest threat to world peace and harmony was the fear of the possibility of the outbreak of the third world war.

Let’s take a look at the fundamental rights in light to what happened in Philippines. The right to life, right to an environment of a particular quality, right adequate food, water, health, and security was all in a single blow deprived of the victims of the typhoon.

Despite the fact that states are responsible for ensuring the uplifting of the fundamental rights of its citizenry, climate change has proved that sometimes a single state may be completely unable to help its people in the aftermath of a disaster of certain magnitude.

While watching a BBC program on the rescue efforts in what used to be the city of tacloban, I could not comprehend the dire situation the people were in. With no homes to return to, no drinking water, no shelter, decomposing bodies and the last thing one would think of; escape of inmates from a prison, my mind sprang into action on what I have for some time been casually researching about; the climate induced human rights challenges.

Since Kyoto, a deal to have in place a legal framework on GHG emissions does not seem to be coming soon. Nevertheless the big emitters USA and China have lent a hand in helping the victims of the typhoon in Philippines.

Besides the need of recognizing climate change as a threat to human rights in the same respect war and totalitarianism are, climate negotiations must look towards coming up with legally binding laws on carbon emissions and ways of helping people in the face of climate induced disasters.

When the COP meeting took place in Nairobi Kenya in 2006, some delegates were described by a journalist as “climate tourists” because they came to Kenya to see Africa, take snaps of wildlife, the poor, dying African Children and women”. This could have been as a result these annual negotiations yielding no tangible results. This time we have seen the Philippine’s negotiator in Warsaw calling for “real action”, perhaps we have to keep our hopes alive and wait to see real action happening.

The climate change asylum joke

Last Friday I was listening to a local radio station when the presenter made a joke about a certain man in New Zealand who was in court appealing against refusal to grant him and his family asylum. What seemed funny to the presenter was that this man was basing his asylum application on the threat of sea rise in his home country an island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean and so he did not want to return after his visa expired.

There is this African tale about a young baboon that laughs itself silly on the sight of a burning forest forgetting it won’t have home for the next foreseeable future. Funny as it sounded to him, the presenter forgot the fact that in his own country Uganda in a place called Bududa thousands of people were driven out of their homes by landslides and others were buried in their houses by the mud. Also, floods in the western district of Kasese recently washed out homes and the infrastructure leaving hundreds stranded.

Apparently, according to Reuters the 37 years old Ioane Teitiota was denied asylum on the grounds that his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.

The international legal regime on refugees did not anticipate climate refugees but those displacements by war and bad political regimes. It’s ironic that at the time Nations were pre occupied with rebuilding from the disastrous world wars; their activities were busy causing Global warming.

It is hardly five years when my fellow country men and women in the Northern part of the country have returned back to what used to be their homes from IDPs as a result of the war of the bloodthirsty warlord Joseph Kony. Now a new regime of IDPs as a result of climate change has set in. Women with their toddlers spread the Capital city Kampala running away from hunger and prolonged droughts in their home lands of Karamoja.

A week hardly goes by without news of floods and torrential rains washing away people’s homes and whatever they own or prolonged droughts killing livestock and plantations. What is always important at that stage is whether the countries are able to manage and cope with the situation. Sometimes even the mightier are unable to deal with the problem as we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

While delivering lectures in Swiss schools, students kept asking me and my colleague why countries cannot just make laws and policies to cub global warming. The answer is simple; lack of political will. This reminds me of the fact that most of the legal and political rescue tend to come after an overwhelming disastrous situation.

Whereas IDPs as a result of climate change are increasingly becoming common, the population in the Oceania may actually have nowhere to run to in their own countries but to seek refuge in the neighboring countries incapable of being swallowed up by tsunamis or floods.

It may generally be seen as ingenious for one to seek asylum basing on climate change threats just like the presenter at the local radio station interpreted it. But the most important focus must be put on how to integrate the existing refugee laws to also cater for people displaced not only wars but also climate change. Besides, it is already clear that the “merchant of death” is no longer the likes of Victor Bout with their weapons business but the human activities that increase global warming.

By Mugisha Moses, Uganda