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The Right to be Cold

4 December 2009

I recently chaired a tribunal called “Humanity on Trial” in Stockholm, Sweden. The tribunal focussed on the human impact of climate change and was meant to be taking place in the middle of this century. It looked back on what the world knew as states gathered for the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of 2009. Supposing that the delegations were unable to agree on a binding agreement, the tribunal posed the question why so little was done. Indeed, the Swedish press were full of reports the day before that the Danish hosts had finally admitted that the prospects are now slim of achieving a binding successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, at least at Copenhagen. By Carl Söderbergh

The panel was composed of human rights and environmental experts from Sweden and other countries, and the eight witnesses were called from some of the most exposed populations of the planet, including Inuit in Norway, the indigenous peoples of Latin America and forest-dwellers in India. As a reminder of the urgency of the topic, groups of children came on to the stage and grabbed the microphones to ask the grown-ups, “You knew – why didn’t you do anything!?!” And to set the scene further, the sun rose as the tribunal progressed, ending up as a searing orb hanging above our heads.

A week or so after the tribunal, the stories of the witnesses remain with me. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, was the first witness and is justly renowned for having submitted the first complaint regarding climate change and human rights to an international body. The complaint was lodged by her and 62 other Inuit elders with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2005. Sadly, the Commission did not rule on the substance of the complaint, which identified the United States as the respondent. But it did hold a ground-breaking hearing on the matter.

Watt-Cloutier painted in stark terms what is (or rather was – if we follow the tribunal’s fictional timeframe of taking place mid-century) happening to the Inuit because of climate change. Coastal erosion is causing homes to fall into the sea. Deep fissures have opened up in the permafrost, dividing communities and making hunting grounds less accessible. Even more worrying is that the pack-ice is thinning out and coming later, making the traditional means of transport – dog-sledding – ever more precarious. Given that the ice and snow are so vital, Watt-Cloutier said that the issue of climate change had to do with their “right to be cold.”

Watt-Cloutier described how the Inuit suffer “a sense of loss of control over our lives.” Most particularly, the age-old ways of hunting allow each generation to transmit “the wisdom of the land” to their children. Now, the elders are finding it difficult to instil their children with the values and beliefs of their people. Inuit communities have seen rising alcoholism and an increase in the suicide rate as traditional roles are being undermined.

The petition to the Inter-American Commission was submitted because the Inuit did not “want to go down as a footnote in history.” Nor did they want to be perceived as “powerless victims.” When asked how states had responded, Watt-Cloutier replied that US representatives had made arguments based on economic efficiency: it costs too much to stop the damage.

For Watt-Cloutier, however, the responsibility is clear. The industrialised countries and urban populations in particular have lost their connection to the natural world, and we should be looking to minorities, indigenous peoples and other populations who retain the necessary knowledge in order to regain that balance. Indeed, Watt-Cloutier looked upon the petition as the Inuit peoples’ “gift”, intended to raise awareness of this need.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan, an Indian forest-dwellers’ rights activist, pointed out that the rainy season did not come in 2009. Forest-dwellers lead a particularly vulnerable existence, according to Gopalakrishnan, since their environment has already been affected by the depredations of private corporations which have been grabbing forested areas and using the timber to produce commodities. Thus, the forest communities of India face both a deprival of resources as well as a loss of control over their own lives. Gopalakrishnan urged that the forests of India and elsewhere be saved as a way to combat the effects of climate change.

During the break, a member of the audience approached me to comment on the proceedings. Wisely, he noted that perhaps the witnesses from affected populations should have been sitting on the panel and the members of the tribunal, who came from industrialised countries, should have been asked to testify.

Alivio Aruquipa Lazo lives in a village in the Bolivian Andes, where the indigenous population depends on the Mururata glacier for their water. He was elected by the village to come and speak at the tribunal. In 2009, the glacier is already providing too little water, and the village foresees that they will have to move in order to survive. Lazo described how their way of life focuses on the glacier – the village gives offerings to it. If they are displaced, the village’s beliefs and traditions and, indeed, their language risk disappearing.

Sultana Begum, a women’s rights activist in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, described the particular gender aspect of the impact of natural disasters and climate change. Women are often not informed when floods occur and stay behind to care for their children, thus being at an ever-greater risk of being swept away. Moreover, women are not included when communities discuss flood prevention strategies. Her testimony echoed the information MRG had received from Dalit women in India, following the Tsunami of 2004.

After these and the other testimonies, the panel gathered to deliberate. What was our decision? While we certainly recognised the human rights dimension to climate change, we faced a dilemma as international law is weak when it comes to legal responsibility across borders. Moreover, we felt that all of us – most especially those of us who belong to majority communities in industrialised countries – stood accused. Ultimately, we had to leave it to the audience to decide.

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This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.