GENEVA Climate change threatens the human
rights of millions of people who are at risk of losing access
to housing, food and clean water unless governments intervene
early to counter its effects, experts said on Tuesday.
At a conference on climate change and migration, United
Nations officials said rising sea levels and intense storms,
droughts and floods could force scores of people from their
homes and off their lands -- some permanently.
"Global warming and extreme weather conditions may have
calamitous consequences for the human rights of millions of
people," said Kyung-wha Kang, the U.N. deputy high commissioner
for human rights.
"Ultimately climate change may affect the very right to
life of various individuals," she said, pointing to threats of
hunger, malnutrition, exposure to disease and lost livelihoods,
particularly in poor rural areas dependent on fertile soil.
Kang, a South Korean, said countries had an obligation "to
prevent and address some of the direst consequences that
climate change may reap on human rights."
This may include providing safe housing, ensuring good
sanitation and water-drinking supplies, and making sure
citizens have access to information and legal redress, and take
part in decision-making, she said.
Environmental disasters and natural resource scarcity have
long been seen as contributors to displacement, for instance in
Sudan's Darfur region where 2.5 million people have been driven
from their homes by conflict rooted in part in access to water.
But the United Nations has not yet expressly tackled
climate change as a human right, for instance by enshrining the
right to protection from its effects in an international
Michelle Leighton, director of human rights programs at the
University of San Francisco's law school, told the conference
pressures from global warming could also force would-be
migrants into the hands of criminals.
Some three quarters of sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural
drylands are now degraded to some degree, she said, pointing to
West African countries such as Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria as
most acutely vulnerable to climate change-related damage.
Many people in Somalia, Mali and Cape Verde will also have
little option but to leave their lands in coming years, and
many are likely to turn to human smugglers for help in
accessing more prosperous countries in Europe and elsewhere,
"This is a big business now," Leighton said. "If the
climate change predictions come true, and we see much more
pressure on agricultural lands in sub-Saharan Africa, we are
likely to see an increase in illegal smuggling as well."
Gordon Shepherd of WWF International told the session that
such pressures must be addressed by the international community
as well as governments. "None of us will escape the effects of
the disasters that are facing the future generations," he said.
(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Mary Gabriel)