Politics of Poverty

Climate Change and Inequality Weighed at the Inter-American Court

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Courts are the newest battleground in the struggle for climate justice. Oxfam advocated at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for stronger standards for governments to protect the rights of people at risk due to climate change.

Climate change has emerged as one of the world’s great drivers of poverty, inequality and human rights abuses. The destructive impacts of global warming disproportionately harm the world’s poorest regions and people, jeopardize access to food and water, generate searing temperatures that have led to a spike in heat-induced deaths, and are igniting a wave of climate migration that could displace up to one billion people. Oxfam estimates that 91% of climate-related deaths in the past fifty years occurred in developing nations, and that the death toll from floods is seven times higher in unequal countries than their more equal counterparts. By 2030, climate change will push a further 65 – 135 million people into poverty.

Oxfam is fighting back.

Taking the fight to the courtroom

With government action faltering, advocates have filed a string of cases and convinced sympathetic administrations to request opinions from in the world’s most influential courts. We have joined these efforts – filing submissions alone or in concert with others before the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.. Most recently, we filed an amicus brief at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), a historically progressive tribunal, to inform its decision on state obligations to protect human rights in light of climate change. Our submission encourages the Court to clarify that states must take urgent and immediate action to address the severe human rights concerns that climate change poses.

Indigenous rights, access to food, and transboundary respect for human rights

Alongside governments, UN agencies, and civil society activists, Oxfam presented our arguments (beginning at the 1 hour 20 minute mark here) to the Court during its “Climate Emergency and Human Rights” hearing in Bridgetown, Barbados last week. Our brief covered three issues.

The right to food

The right to food is firmly established in international law. Yet food security is under grave threat from climate change: the rise of floods, droughts, heatwaves, loss of arable land to rising seas, and increasing food commodity prices all conspire to decrease global food supply. And hunger throughout the Americas is on the rise: the Organization of American States estimates that an alarming 41% of people throughout the Americas are moderately or severely food insecure due in part to climate change, with women, girls and Indigenous Peoples at particular risk. Governments must take proactive steps to protect the right to food. This includes 1) investing in agricultural research to develop climate-resistant crops; 2) ensuring emergency humanitarian aid in the short-term, while devising livelihood protection measures that can boost productivity for smallholder farmers in the longer-term; and 3) regulating companies that generate significant carbon pollution or drive deforestation in order to stop the continued assault on our global food supply.

Countries’ human rights obligations to people outside their borders

International law requires that countries do not harm the human rights of people both within and outside their borders, and do not allow their companies to cause such harm. It also requires countries to engage in international assistance and cooperation to contribute to the realization of human rights globally. However, many governments, especially in the Global North, have denied that they have any such obligations to people outside their borders. We called on the Court to re-affirm that[ governments are legally required to 1) limit all activities that cause carbon pollution as rapidly as possible to respect the human rights of people both in their countries and abroad, using methods that do not violate human rights; 2) make companies headquartered in their territory limit all activities that cause carbon pollution as rapidly as possible; and 3) provide as much financial, technical and other support as possible to other countries as they implement adaptation and mitigation strategies, including providing remedy for those people harmed by the climate crisis.

The rights of Indigenous environmental defenders, particularly women.

Indigenous Peoples defending their lands from encroaching corporations have been subjected to a disturbing level of harassment, intimidation, and violence. At least 401 environmental defenders were killed across 26 countries in 2022 alone, with Latin America having the unfortunate distinction as the world’s deadliest region. The pressure on Indigenous Peoples – the globe’s most effective environmental stewards – will continue to grow as lands and resources become increasingly scarce. Governments must enact strong laws and policies to protect Indigenous environmental defenders as they defend their rights to land and a healthy environment, and prosecute perpetrators of violence to ensure accountability. They must also ensure that companies and administrative agencies alike respect Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent before any attempts to use or obtain their lands. Finally, governments must restrict corporate operations that lead to excessive deforestation, carbon emissions, and other destructive impacts that exacerbate climate change and create further pressure on the lands and natural resources of Indigenous Peoples.

So what?

The stakes couldn’t be higher. As a forward-thinking institution with broad geographic remit, the Court’s Advisory Opinion could wield significant influence on governments’ approach to climate change. By clarifying that states must enact immediate, transformative measures to protect Indigenous environmental defenders, people facing hunger, and those whose health and livelihoods have been harmed by carbon pollution from other countries, the Court can give an enormous boost to the climate and human rights movements. What’s more, its Opinion will arrive at a critical moment: it will no doubt be carefully weighed by the International Court of Justice Judges drafting their own Advisory Opinion on state obligations in climate change, which will clearly define international law binding all countries. The ripple effects of a strong decision on human rights and the climate would be felt worldwide.

Of course, this decision – like all legal opinions– won’t fix the problem in isolation. National governments must find the political will to adhere to the IACHR’s pronouncements and implement the resultant obligations in good faith. Civil society too must hold governments’ feet to the fire for implementing these obligations, and should governments fail to do so, they must launch domestic court proceedings to ensure that international law is enforced at national and local levels to materially benefit those at grave risk from climate change.

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