October 04, 2010


(Based on the Report Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights A/HRC/10/6, 15 January 2009)

The physical impacts of global warming cannot easily be classified as human rights violations, not least because climate change-related harm often cannot clearly be attributed to acts or omissions of specific States.

Irrespective of whether or not climate change effects can be construed as human rights violations, human rights obligations provide imprtant protection to the individuals whose rights are affected by climate change or by measures taken to respond to climate change.

Under international human rights law, individuals rely first and foremost on their own States for the protection of their human rights. In the face of climate change, however, it is doubtful, for the reasons mentioned above, that an individual would be able to hold a particular State responsible for harm caused by climate change. Human rights law provides more effective protection with regard to measures taken by States to address climate change and their impact on human rights.

For example, if individuals have to move away from a high-risk zone, the State must ensure adequate safeguards and take measures to avoid forced evictions. Equally, several claims about environmental harm have been considered by national, regional and international judicial and quasi-judicial bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, regarding the impact on human rights, such as the right to life, to heath, to privacy and family life and to information.

Similar cases in which an environmental harm is linked to climate change could also be considered by courts and quasi-judicial human rights treaty bodies. In such cases, it would appear that the matter of the case would rest on whether the State through its acts or omissions had failed to protect an individual against a harm affecting the enjoyment of human rights. In some cases, States may have an obligation to protect individuals against foreseeable threats to human rights related to climate change, such as an increased risk of flooding in certain areas.

While international human rights treaties recognize that some aspects of economic, social and cultural rights may only be realized progressively over time, they also impose obligations which require immediate implementation. First, States parties must take deliberate, concrete and targeted measures, making the most efficient use of available resources, to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realization of rights. Second, irrespective of resource limitations, States must guarantee non-discrimination in access to economic, social and cultural rights. Third, States have a core obligation to ensure, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each right enshrined in the Covenant.

In sum, irrespective of the additional strain climate change-related events may place on available resources, States remain under an obligation to ensure the widest possible enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights under any given circumstances. Importantly, States must, as a matter of priority, seek to satisfy core obligations and protect groups in society who are in a particularly vulnerable situation.


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