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Leighton sheds light on human rights and climate change

Michelle Leighton is a professor and director of human rights programs at the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco. She has counseled Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the U.N. Environment Program, and the International Fund for Agriculture Development on the impact that climate change will have on human rights. She has been writing recently on the rights of environmental migrants, people forced from their homelands because of climate change. She plans on bringing her students to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in December as part of the U.S.’s delegation to the U.N.

You’ve done a lot of recent work on climate change migrants and human rights. What are some of the major issues facing these migrants?

There are a number of critical issues now. One is that if the climate change predictions hold true, there will be major droughts, water scarcity, more disasters and people in vulnerable communities, particularly Africa, who are already seeking to use migration as a coping strategy, or people in Mexico, or people in Asia for that matter­—they will be forced to migrate even further distances. So if you take the example of Senegal, which may lose 50 percent of its crop production, they already have a significant migration population that’s moving across the Mediterranean to Europe. They also have a significant population moving to other countries in Africa, just in terms of movement for economic reasons. If you add the climate change factor onto that, which affects even their ability to return at times, they may be forced to not only migrate to some other place in Senegal or some other place in Africa but all the way over to the European continent.
We don’t have any rules or laws that permit that. And in fact, within the African continent, they only adopted a treaty allowing people to move across borders a couple of weeks ago. But in Africa, it’s an example of people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, moving across the borders all the time. The ethnic groups and tribes that had existed before colonialism were nomadic around many different regions. So people are generally inclined to migrate.
The African Union just adopted a treaty, a very far-reaching treaty, knowing that climate change and environmental disasters are going to force migration, but the rest of the world doesn’t have that.

So will nations have to change the way they are contributing to climate change or start working on how to accommodate these migrants, or both?

Probably both, since some of the climate change predictions say that changes to the weather patterns are irreversible, and we’re going to see more climate changes before we see less of them. Governments are definitely recognizing that these issues are looming, and haven’t really the means yet to address them. Some governments have actually identified migration in their national adaptation plans. So those are the documents that would be used when and if governments negotiate an agreement in Copenhagen to fund adaptation programs.
But that raises other problems. Because if one government’s plan is to relocate a group of people who may be affected in a “hot zone” to another area of the country, that has human rights issues attached to it, because that’s called resettlement and resettlement has a history of populations who may not want to go or whose rights may be abused in the new area. There really aren’t any standards for resettlement, so we’d have to create those.

What kind of policy changes and negotiations will have to happen?

Well, climate change isn’t a domestic issue. It’s a global issue. So those working in Copenhagen want to realize some sort of international agreement, but it’s moving very slowly. In terms of the social implications of these policies, governments are often very domestically oriented in their policy, which is why we don’t have an international migration agreement. So they tend to see this as a “national security” issue. If you’re a developed nation and someone’s going across your border, it’s a national security issue. If you’re a country that’s an ascending country, then you view it as a survival strategy, a coping mechanism. Those are very different perspectives to enter into a dialogue.
I can say that there has been more progress than I had thought. The African Union agreement, for example, has a provision for these migrants, though it may just be limited to environmental migration linked to conflict. In Europe, there’s now a call by the parliamentarians to talk about this in the convention on human rights. The United States may be the furthest behind, because we’re not talking to Mexico about an agreement, or the Caribbean countries, or any other countries for that matter. It doesn’t mean we won’t. We are definitely going to be one of the countries that will be affected by that international agreement. No one knows how many people there will be. It’s just based on the number of vulnerable populations. They don’t have any rights, and today there’s already 25 million environmental refugees.

In terms of the challenges in human rights more broadly, what ways might these precedents sort of effect a post climate-change era? Which rights are under the most stress?
The right to food, the right to shelter, the right to livelihood—these will be things that the people affected by climate change won’t have caused. There will be some additional marginal impact on everyone, and there may be discrimination that happens when these migrants try to move, because they’re not protected when they move from their homeland. That raises other rights—the right to be free from discrimination and a whole host of other rights that the High Commissioner at the United Nations, the secretary, just came out with a report about, which details all the myriad rights that will be affected by climate change.
He also called upon governments to take these rights into consideration, to take them into consideration in their mitigation policies, in their adaptation policies and take them into consideration in what institutions are created to monitor health and human life more generally, beyond Copenhagen. That hasn’t happened yet, but there is a call for that, and I think, as I said in my talk, that the problem remains that so many people don’t know what’s coming, and they see it as a far-away event, as the next generation’s problem. It’s really our problem, and we have to come to terms with it.

Is there any sort of precedent for this in the last 50 years?

Not much, except for conflict and war. We have that precedent, that people who are under abuse, and suffering from crises, do tend to move. The mass movement though is a bit overplayed, because it’s not that everyone’s going to get up and move at the same time.

What about places that seem to be developmentally maxed out?

In the long run, you may not be able to do much. In the long run, if we don’t stop climate change, this is going to be irrelevant. By 2100, there will be more problems than we can imagine unless we’ve done so much to address them. But along the way, we can do a lot of things. If we help communities adapt by helping them use conjunctive technology, which is surface and groundwater management, we could go a long way in many communities for maximizing the rain that they do get in storage facilities. We’ve never put the kind of time and effort into doing things like that because we like to build big projects, where we hand the money over to some conglomerate and say build a big project, build a big dam.

It seems like this will call for a more local, more mobile development strategy, something like these new trends in micro-finance and NGOs.

The innovations that are going to come along in the next four or five years from people in these issues will be very helpful for governments as they try to implement these adaptation plans, which right now are written very poorly. There’s just no understanding of how countries are going to grapple with these issues. There’s going to be a need for people to help in these partnerships under each unique circumstance how to better plan what to do to better prevent the worst impact, because disaster really isn’t about a huge storm, it’s about this movement of people. Here in the United States we can withstand some, but even we have our threshold. There are a lot of vulnerable communities in the United States, and we’re not preparing them for disaster at all.
If we could start thinking about climate change from a human-rights perspective, we would have to start having town hall meetings, we’d have to start informing the public more readily about the types of problems they might encounter, and allowing communities to help prepare for the future, what resources we need, and that involves a dialogue about economic and social rights, which means we have to question where the money in our country is being spent. We should have more of a say in how the money in our country is being spent then we do at the present moment, because we don’t. And a lot of this is not so transparent. That all has to come out when you put it through a human-rights lens. It means really getting people more involved in the democratic process. So taking back our democratic process is really the first thing that needs to happen in promoting human rights.

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