Climate Change and Human Rights: The Unexplored Terrains – A Discussion

“We need to have more concrete ways to address climate change through International Law,” said Prof. (Dr.) Manoj Kumar Sinha, Director, Indian Law Institute, Vice President, Indian Society of International Law. He was speaking at a webinar discussion on ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The Unexplored Terrains’ organised by Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, Ernakulam in association with the Weeramantry Centre for Peace, Justice and International Law on 27 February 2021. This discussion was the fifth lecture as a part of the year-long extended lecture series on ‘Alternative Approaches to International Law (AAIL 2020-21)’.

Dr. Manoj highlighted climate change as an issue of international concern for it has already started to have a significant impact on the environment at the global level. Desertification and the meltdown of ice caps have displaced thousands of people from their places of livelihood. It was none other than Justice Weeramantry who established the link between climate change and human rights. He opined that none of the human rights declarations explicitly spoke about environment protection or climate change, be it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, nor the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. He argued that the effect of climate change affects the Right to Life of every individual.

Though Justice Weeramantry had presented this thought as early as 1997, it was only in 2005 that this ideology received the attention it required. Prof. Sinha expressed that the topic of mitigating climate change through international law and linking it as a violation of human rights witnessed significant development only in the 21st century. It all started in December 2005 when the Chair of Inuit Circumpolar Conference (an Indigenous Peoples’ Organisation) submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking relief from violations of human rights of Inuits resulting from global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the United States of America. Following this, in November 2007, the Small Island Developing States adopted the Male’ Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change. It was only in this declaration that it was explicitly recognised that climate change affects the full enjoyment of human rights. In the 2007 Bali Conference, the 13th Conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed that climate change affects the human rights of not only the present generations but also that of the future generations.

Prof. Sinha briefly explained the current status of the working of the UNFCCC and shed some light on the Paris Agreement. He strongly believed that the issue of climate change could be neutralized only with the coming together of nations across the globe. International Cooperation is the need of the hour to prevent worsening of the current situation. Stating Article 1 Clause 3 of the UN Charter, he called out for the cooperation of all member states to work together and resolve the effects of climate change. He also acknowledged the dichotomous nature of development vs environment. He clarified that development only in economic terms at the cost of the environment may prove detrimental to a nation, in fact, the whole world in this case. He invoked Agenda 21 of the Rio Declaration and emphasized the need for sustainable development.

Finally, he believed that it is the responsibility of the State to respect, protect and undertake measures for the realisation of human rights. Multinational Corporations too have their say in supporting the states towards fulfilling their obligations. He implied that the existing International law for climate change can be strengthened if all institutions come together. The informative and engaging lecture was followed by an interesting Q/A session where scholars raised their questions and comments. Nithin Ramakrishnan, Assistant Professor of International Law at Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth thanked Dr. Manoj Kumar Sinha for the interesting discussion and the participants for their continued support towards the lecture series.