Traditionally, human rights were meant to protect individual freedoms from governments, for example outlawing torture and restrictions on free speech. The UN and activists, however, have inflated them over the years to cover ideas ranging from housing to a clean environment — perversely threatening real rights.
The latest example is climate change, undermining “the full and effective enjoyment of human rights” by jeopardising food and health, the latest draft for the international summit in Copenhagen in December says. This linkage comes straight from the UN’s discredited Human Rights Council (HRC), dominated by countries like Pakistan, Russia, and China.
Pressure group Friends of the Earth makes clear that this means that any developed country not signing up to a Copenhagen treaty will be violating human rights: “The legal and moral responsibility for urgent meaningful action rests firmly on the shoulders of the rich, industrialised countries whose over-consumption of fossil fuels and promotion of particular development paradigms has caused the climate crisis we all face.”
The FoE statement forecasts “massive human rights violations impacting on the world’s most impoverished people…” Greenpeace says “climate change…is the most important economic issue of our time, and indeed a human rights issue.” For activists it would indeed be a great coup to give their agenda a legal, human-rights, standing — and the prospect of cash is attractive to such backers as Bangladesh.
The 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously declared human rights to be “nonsense on stilts,” meaning they could neither be natural nor inalienable but had to be agreed and enforced. While the principles of human rights have helped secure liberty and the rule of law for millions of people, extending them to nebulous concepts such as climate change is indeed nonsensical.
For rights to have meaning, it must be clear what they are and who is responsible for upholding them. Take free speech: if a government arrests a dissident for peaceful statements or thoughts, it is clearly breaching human rights.
The right to a clean environment or health and education are far less definable. Also, if people have a right to these things, others must provide them: in practice, collectively via governments. Such “positive rights” are therefore really a call for state intervention, at the expense of other priorities and freedoms.
As acknowledged even by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, there is no way of determining which individual, organization or government is to blame in the event of any climate-related disaster. Although many experts agree that humans are affecting the climate, there is little agreement on the degree or outcome. And how does one determine if a drought in China or a flood on a Pacific island is entirely caused by man-made climate change?
If— implausibly — scientists did determine that the natural disaster was solely the result of human carbon dioxide emissions, which particular government should be held liable?
For matters such as free speech and torture, rights are important for protecting individuals from the nefarious practices of governments. But elevating complicated concepts such as health and the environment to human-rights status merely over-simplifies the economic and scientific issues.
So far, defenders of traditional human rights have been reluctant to criticize this political agenda: no-one wants to be perceived as being against not only the environment but also human rights. That is why countries such as Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands signed up to the HRC statement with repressive Albania, Bulgaria and Syria. Egypt sensibly did not get involved.
But there is a real danger to human rights from this false cry: the enormous cost of proposals to halt climate change. They would prolong the world recession and prevent the growth that is the only way for the poor to get better health, living standards and education — which human-rights activists insist governments must provide.
This campaign also devalues true human rights. The Maldives is one of the main backers of climate change as a human-rights issue, while arbitrarily arresting citizens and censoring the press. While the deeply politicized HRC is keen to stretch its mandate to cover climate change, it has refused to condemn Sudan for the atrocities in Darfur and has passed several resolutions on “combating defamation of religion,” which stifle freedom of speech and strengthen oppressive laws.
As they prepare for one of the most important climate change summits ever, negotiators should reject the human rights approach to climate change as “nonsense on stilts” and stick to what can and cannot be done.
Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs at CEPOS, a Danish think tank and an external lecturer of international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen.