Today is World Human Rights Day – the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came into force on 10th December 1948 and remains the treaty which underpins global human rights protection to this day.
But the world is a very different place now: much has changed in the intervening 64 years.
Much of that change is positive of course: there have been great strides in development, poverty reduction, public health, educational opportunities, gender equality, to name just a few.
But there has also been a rise conflict and war, poverty and inequality, international free trade which has seen the world’s largest companies become larger and more influential than many countries, and, disastrously, greenhouse gas emissions.
We are already seeing the devastating impact of climate change around the world – as ‘freak’ weather events, droughts, heat-waves and floods all occur with more frequency, as more of the world’s productive agricultural land becomes desert, and more vulnerable people die of the extreme cold and extreme heat that seems to happen, somewhere in the world, every year.
Of course, the deaths, injuries, displacement and poverty that climate change is already causing can, and should, be viewed as fundamental breaches of human rights requiring urgent global action.
That’s certainly how many less-developed countries see it. In my role as Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation to South Asia, I often meet ambassadors and representatives of small, developing nations, who argue that the impact of climate change is the most significant threat their people face, and that the richer nations shouldn’t just act to prevent it, they should compensate those nations that have already seen their citizens’ human rights violated.
The EU has played a key role in global efforts to tackle climate change – but it has never gone far enough, and is failing to show the leadership needed to reach international agreement on how to halt it.
But it is not viewed, officially, as a human rights problem. If it was, that could change the international political debate, speeding up progress toward reducing emissions and properly funding the adaptation measures. Few countries, or ‘blocs’, are prepared to argue (well, publicly at least) that their national interests prevent them acting to prevent human rights abuses – a logic that we hear all too often when it comes to climate change.
More of us need to start viewing climate change as a human rights issue – and demanding that the response from richer nations is as single-minded as if it were faced with a human rights emergency of the same scale; a disaster that threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world, but a human rights disaster that will hit the poorest hardest.