Human Rights

“Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights), has to be seen in tandem with Article 3 that also states that ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’. The human rights context throws up a wide range of issues like the right to food, land, health, water, electricity, and education. 

Environmental degradation is impacting the sphere of human rights in a variety of ways.  In the Sunderbans in West Bengal, India, rising sea levels and subsequent loss of land are contributing to the gradual exodus of 450,000 Indians from the deltaic regions of Sunderbans into the mainland.  The influx of climate change refugees raises the issue of right to livelihoods and the forced shift to unfamiliar forms of livelihood under the harshest of conditions. Environmental degradation raises the basic question of fixing the responsibility of providing shelter, livelihood, sanitation, health facilities and education for those that are displaced or otherwise negatively impacted.  Taking a human rights approach to climate change would place extra responsibility of relief and rehabilitation for impacted populations as well ensuring peace with the cohabitation of diverse communities competing for limited resources.  

Typically, those who feel the harshest impacts of environmental degradation are already the most vulnerable.  Often times, these communities are indigenous groups of the world. As is the case with most indigenous groups, there is a spiritual and physical connection with nature. Climate change is playing havoc with their traditional understanding of nature and disconnecting them from their cultural heritage. The right to their indigenous identity is being pushed to the brink of extinction. A value cannot be placed for loss in terms of the cultural identity and one that cannot be restored.  It is within this context that we should view the rights of the Inuit who live in and around the Arctic and other indigenous communities of the world.  

Conversely, the assertion of human rights will also impact the environment, as the poor and marginalized demand that governments provide the basic needs for the community such as water and electricity. Often, this requires carbon-intensive responses unless the government has the political will to explore sustainable forms of water management and providing electricity.

The impact of climate change on human rights is one wherein an already overburdened legal system will have to deal with the demands of climate refugees for the restoration of their rights. This combined with the historical marginalization of those who live a subsistence lifestyle, wherein the poor cannot sustain legal recourse, leads to increased security risks in many parts of the world as growing populations are impacted by environmental degradation. 

Climate change will determine the economic models that we adopt and the development path that countries will embrace.  A human rights approach to the issue of climate change would engage not only those in positions of power, but also those marginalized voices that will feel the most severe impacts. Climate change human rights would also address the need for common but differentiated responsibilities of nation-states towards a carbon-neutral path. 

Providing justice must be the underlying principle of the nation-states in a situation where the harshest impacts will be felt by those already vulnerable.  It is important to note that the advocacy towards acknowledging planetary rights would address the issue of climate change from the perspective of collective rights of communities to exist with dignity, an ideal that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was founded upon in 1948.

Human Rights + The Environment

It is estimated that 50 million people will be the victims of hunger due to climate change by 2020. (United Nations)

It is estimated that some 24 million people worldwide have fled their homes due to environmental factors. (UN Refugee Agency)

These estimates, according to UN High Commissioner on Refugees, could rise to 1.0 billion by 2050. It also highlights the lack of scientific research. (International Organization on Migration)

Stats + Figures


Translator: Bibhudutta Sahu (Pune, India), Program Facilitator, Synodical Board of Social Services

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