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Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ ground-breaking resolution on the ‘Climate Emergency’

On 4 March 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights published a resolution titled ‘Climate Emergency: Scope of Inter-American human rights obligations.’ In the Inter-American Human Rights system, this is the first document dedicated exclusively to the issue of climate change. The resolution was adopted by the IACHR pursuant to its mandate to make recommendations to governments of member States of the American Convention on Human Rights for the adoption of progressive measures in favour of human rights, as well as their observance (Article 41(b)).

The resolution not only recognises the link between climate change and the enjoyment of individual and collective human rights, but also attempts to systematize and concretely describe the human rights obligations of States in the context of the climate crisis. The operative part of the resolution is organized into nine chapters, which contain both normative guidance and concrete policy recommendations.

Interestingly, the resolution offers novel recommendations by bridging international human rights law with international environmental law. For instance, it states that those member States which have made international commitments to develop and update Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) (climate-related targets communicated under the Paris Agreement) ‘must incorporate a human rights approach into their construction and implementation’ (paragraph 2). More generally, it recommends that, for procedural and substantive compliance with the ‘right to a healthy environment,’ States must interpret in good faith the principles of environmental law (e.g. prevention, precaution, and so on) in order to seek harmonization and consistency with the principles of international human rights law (paragraph 10).

Most importantly, the resolution affirms that the obligation to take appropriate measures for mitigation of greenhouse gases, implementation of adaptation measures and remediation of climate-relate damages should not be neglected because of the ‘multi-causal nature of the climate crisis’ (paragraph 15). It does so by reading human rights law in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Moreover, the resolution reiterates findings in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights’ (IACtHR) advisory opinion no. 23 regarding extra-territorial obligations under international human rights law, and applies them in the context of States’ greenhouse gas emissions. The relevant paragraph is worth quoting in whole:

‘39. States are tasked with implementing human rights obligations that are intertwined with those of international environmental law in the contexts of polluting activities within their jurisdiction, or under their control, so that they do not cause serious harm to their environment or that of other countries or areas outside the limits of national jurisdiction. At the same time, the rule of customary international law of “doing no harm” would be breached as a result of greenhouse gas emissions and thus the increase in frequency and intensity of meteorological phenomena attributable to climate change, which, regardless of their origin, contribute cumulatively to the emergence of adverse effects in other States.

The resolution also dedicates separate chapters to individuals and groups in situations of vulnerability or who have been historically and systematically discriminated against, as well as indigenous peoples, tribal groups, Afro-descendants and those working in rural areas, requiring States to account for the disparate impact that climate change and climate response measures may have on the lives and interests of such individuals and groups.

Judged by the tenor of its language and its coverage of a multitude of issues under international human rights law that relate to climate change, the resolution is ground-breaking. Its normative relevance in the Inter-American Human Rights system is promising, considering the approach of the IACtHR in valuing soft-law instruments arising out of the system for interpretive guidance (see for e.g. OC-23/17, OC-22/16). It remains to be seen how member States receive the resolution and respond to it.

Written by Pranav Ganesan (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)

Categories
Canada Emissions reductions Indigenous peoples' rights Inter-American Human Rights System Right to culture Right to health Right to property Right to subsistence/food

Arctic Athabaskan Council v. Canada

Summary:
This case, brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by Athabaskan people living in Canada, concerned alleged rights violations relating to Arctic warming and melting caused by Canadian black carbon emissions. The case alleged that Canada, by failing to regulate black carbon emissions, had violated various human rights of the Athabaskan people, including their rights to health, subsistence, property, and culture.

The complaint:
The applicants in this case allege that Canada’s emissions of black carbon, which is a component of sooty fine-particle pollution and stems largely from diesel emissions and the burning of biomass, is particularly harmful to their rights and way of life because it is emitted in or near the Arctic.

The applicants submit that the warming effect of black carbon on the global climate is second only to carbon dioxide. In the Arctic, black carbon warms in two ways: it absorbs sunlight in the air, and it reduces the reflectivity of ice and snow-covered surfaces, accelerating their rate of melting.

In particular, the applicants cite their right to culture, particularly their ability to transmit their cultural knowledge to future generations, because “Arctic warming and melting has made the weather, the hunt, and the behaviors and occurrence of fish and wildlife so erratic that elders no longer feel confident in teaching younger people traditional ways.”

The also argue that warming and melting has affected the integrity of the land, compromising their right to property. This includes floods, forest fires, melting permafrost, erosion-related harms and landslides, as well as the destruction of cultural and historic sites and increased difficulty in accessing resources. The Athabaskans also invoke their right to means of subsistence, citing difficulties in accessing traditional food sources and adverse effects on biodiversity. Lastly, they cite their right to health, arguing that the loss of traditional foods has adversely affected the Athabaskan way of life. Melting permafrost is affecting water quality, and the loss of traditional food sources is forcing the people to rely on purchased food, leading to increases in the prevalence of chronic diseases.

Before the Commission, the applicants allege that the Canadian state’s acts and omissions represent an ongoing violation of their human rights, and that there are no domestic remedies suitable for addressing these violations. They argue that Canada has failed to take action to reduce black carbon emissions, and that such action could substantially remedy the Arctic warming and melting that are causing the violations at stake. They accordingly request the Commission to investigate and confirm the alleged harms; set forth the facts and applicable law, declaring a violation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man; and recommend steps to limit black carbon emissions and protect Arctic Athabaskan culture and resources from Arctic warming and melting.

Forum:
Inter-American Commission of Human Rights

Date filed:
23 April 2013

Status of case:
Pending

Suggested citation:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Arctic Athabaskan Peoples v. Canada, petition submitted on 23 April 2013, case pending.

Further information:
For more on this petition, see

The full text of the petition has been made available here by EarthJustice here: https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/AAC_PETITION_13-04-23a.pdf

For a summary of the petition, provided by EarthJustice, click here: https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/library/legal_docs/summary-of-inuit-petition-to-inter-american-council-on-human-rights.pdf

Further reading:
Agnieszka Szpak, ‘Arctic Athabaskan Council’s Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Climate Change—Business as Usual or a Breakthrough?’ 162 Climatic Change (2020) 1575–1593.

Categories
2006 Biodiversity Emissions reductions Extraterritorial obligations Freedom of movement Indigenous peoples' rights Inter-American Human Rights System Private and family life Right to culture Right to health Right to property Right to subsistence/food United States of America

Sheila Watt-Cloutier et al. v. the United States of America

Summary:
Filed in 2005 by members of the Inuit people living in Canada, this application concerned the climate change-related responsibility of the United States of America. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights refused to examine the case on the grounds that the information provided was insufficient.

More information on the petition:
In this petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk woman and Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference living in Canada, sought relief from human rights violations related to climate change caused by the acts and omissions of the United States. Ms. Watt-Cloutier, on behalf of herself, 62 other individuals, and all of the Inuit of the arctic regions of the United States of America and Canada, sought relief against the effects of climate change, which — it was argued — have the potential to affect every aspect of the life of the Inuit people, including the quality of the permafrost, land and water, biodiversity and food sources, and cultural rights. The petitioners relied on the United States’ obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and other instruments that shape these obligations under the Declaration, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This case was extraterritorially framed: it was brought by Inuit people living in Canada, but against the United States of America for its climate change-related human rights impacts. The petitioners argued that the acts and omissions by the United States had violated the Inuit’s 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 under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other international instruments.

Outcome:
On 16 November 2006, the Commission refused to consider the petition because it considered that it had provided insufficient information. Specifically, it found that the petition did not “enable us [the Commission] to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of rights protected by the American Declaration”.

The Commission held a hearing in 2007 concerning the case, however it did not revisit its decision not to examine the complaints made.

Forum:
Inter-American Commission of Human Rights

Date filed:
7 December 2005

Suggested citation:
IACHR, Sheila Watt-Cloutier et al. v. USA, petition rejected on 7 December 2005

Full text of the petition:
The text of the petition is available at climatecasechart.com. Click here to access it.

The video of the 2007 hearing is available here.

Further information:
For more on this petition, see:

Agnieszka Szpak, ‘Arctic Athabaskan Council’s petition to the Inter-American Commission on human rights and climate change—business as usual or a breakthrough?’ 162 Climatic Change (2020) 1575–1593.