Human Rights Commission to Hear Inuit Challenge to U.S. on Global Warming

The InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights has agreed to hear an unprecedented challenge to U.S. policy on greenhouse gas emissions. As reported in the article below, a delegation representing Inuit peoples from the US, Canada, Russia and Greenland will argue that global warming is destroying their way of life and that the United States is responsible.

The case stems from a petition submitted in December 2005 by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. It documented the existing, ongoing, and projected destruction of the Arctic environment and the culture and hunting-based economy of Inuit caused by global warming.

Because annual average arctic temperatures are increasing more than twice as fast as temperatures in the rest of the world, climate change has already caused severe impacts in the Arctic, including deterioration in ice conditions, a decrease in the quantity and quality of snow, changes in the weather and weather patterns, and a transfigured landscape as permafrost melts at an alarming rate, causing slumping, landslides, and severe erosion in some coastal areas….The impacts of climate change, caused by acts and omissions by the United States, violate the Inuit’s fundamental human rights protected by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other international instruments. These include their rights to the benefits of culture, to property, to the preservation of health, life, physical integrity, security, and a means of subsistence, and to residence, movement, and inviolability of the home.

The petition asked the Commission to:

  1. Make an onsite visit to investigate and confirm the harms suffered by the named individuals whose rights have been violated and other affected Inuit;
  2. Hold a hearing to investigate the claims raised in this Petition;
  3. Prepare a report setting forth all the facts and applicable law, declaring that the United States of America is internationally responsible for violations of rights affirmed in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and in other instruments of international law, and recommending that the United States:
    1. Adopt mandatory measures to limit its emissions of greenhouse gases and cooperate in efforts of the community of nations – as expressed, for example, in activities relating to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – to limit such emissions at the global level;
    2. Take into account the impacts of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions on the Arctic and affected Inuit in evaluating and before approving all major government actions;
    3. Establish and implement, in coordination with Petitioner and the affected Inuit, a plan to protect Inuit culture and resources, including, inter alia, the land, water, snow, ice, and plant and animal species used or occupied by the named individuals whose rights have been violated and other affected Inuit; and mitigate any harm to these resources caused by US greenhouse gas emissions;
    4. Establish and implement, in coordination with Petitioner and the affected Inuit communities, a plan to provide assistance necessary for Inuit to adapt to the impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided;
    5. Provide any other relief that the Commission considers appropriate and just.

 


The following article appeared in The Independent, February 9, 2007

Inuit Accuse US of Destroying
Their Way of Life with Global Warming

A delegation of Inuit is to travel to Washington DC to provide first-hand testimony of how global warming is destroying their way of life and to accuse the Bush administration of undermining their human rights.

The delegation, representing Inuit peoples from the US, Canada, Russia and Greenland, will argue that the US’s energy policies and its position as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is having a devastating effect on their communities. Melting sea ice, rising seas and the impact on the animals they rely on for food threatens their existence.

The Inuit’s efforts to force the US to act are part of an unprecedented attempt to link climate change to international human rights laws. They will argue before the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights (ICHR) that the US’s behaviour puts it in breach of its obligations. “The impacts of climate change, caused by acts and omissions by the US, violate the Inuit’s fundamental human rights protected by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other international instruments,” the Inuit argued in a letter to the ICHR. “Because Inuit culture is inseparable from the condition of their physical surroundings, the widespread environmental upheaval resulting from climate change violates the Inuit’s right to practice and enjoy the benefits of their culture.”

Indigenous peoples from the Arctic have long argued that global warming was having a dramatic effect on their environment. In 2002, villagers in the remote Alaskan island community of Shishmaref voted to relocate to the mainland because rising sea levels threatened to overwhelm their community. Data has been gathered to support their claims and scientists have recorded how polar regions are the most vulnerable to climate change. The most recent international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment suggested global warming would see temperatures in the Arctic rise by 4-7C over the next 100 years – about twice the previous average estimated increase.

The delegation to Washington will be led by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference who was last week nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking yesterday from Iqaluit in Nunavut, Canada, she said: “For us in the Arctic our entire culture depends on the cold. The problem of climate change is what this is all about. At the same time we will be bringing in lawyers to talk about the link between climate change and human rights.”

The invitation for the Inuit to give testimony before the ICHR next month comes just days after the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided a dire assessment about the threat of climate change. In the Arctic, scientists have estimated that summer sea ice could completely disappear by 2040.

Martin Wagner, of the California-based Earthjustice, said: “There can be no question that global warming is a serious threat to human rights in the Arctic and around the world. The ICHR plays an important role in interpreting and defending human rights, and we are encouraged that it has decided to consider the question of global warming.”

The ICHR, an arm of the Organisation of American States, can issue findings, recommendations and rulings. It can also refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, though the US has always made clear it does not consider itself bound by the court’s rulings.

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