A nation demands the right to exist

The Inuit peoples of the Arctic have launched a dramatic legal action against America. The charge? That US emissions of greenhouse gases have made their very survival impossible


From Information Clearing House



The United States is about to be charged with human rights violations for contributing substantially to global warming.

The Inuit, whose homeland stretches from the northeastern tip of Russia across Alaska and northern Canada to parts of Greenland, plan to seek a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights saying that the actions of the US are threatening their existence.

The Inuit plan is part of a broader shift in the debate over human- caused climate change evident among participants in the 10th round of international talks taking place in Buenos Aires aimed at averting dangerous human interference with the climate system. Inuit leaders said they planned to announce the effort at the climate meeting today. Representatives of poor countries and communities -- from the Arctic fringes to the atolls of the tropics to the flanks of the Himalayas -- say they are imperiled by rising temperatures and seas through no fault of their own. They are casting the issue as no longer simply an environmental problem but as an assault on their basic human rights.

Such a petition could have decent prospects now that industrial countries, including the United States, have concluded in recent reports and studies that warming linked to heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe emissions is contributing to big environmental changes in the Arctic, a number of experts said. Last month, an assessment of Arctic climate change by 300 scientists for the eight countries with Arctic territory, including the United States, concluded that "human influences" are now the dominant factor.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, elected chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), says the biggest fear was not that warming would kill individuals but that it would be the final blow to a sturdy but suffering culture. "We've had to struggle as a people to keep afloat, to keep our indigenous wisdom and traditions. We're an adaptable people, but adaptability has its limits…Something is bound to give, and it's starting to give in the Arctic, and we're sending that early warning signal to the rest of the world."

Chief Gary Harrison of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, said: "Our homes are threatened by storms and melting permafrost, our livelihoods are threatened by changes to the plants and animals we harvest. Even our lives are threatened, as traditional travel routes become more dangerous."

Attorneys from Earthjustice and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) are working with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to file the petition.

Donald Goldberg, a senior attorney from CIEL said at the Conference, "Climate change is a human rights concern on an unprecedented scale. It poses an immediate danger for Inuit and other Arctic inhabitants, but millions of people in mountain areas, low-lying island and coastal regions, and other vulnerable parts of the world will soon face similar threats."

"Protecting human rights is the most fundamental responsibility of governments," said Martin Wagner, International Program managing attorney for Earthjustice. "Climate change is threatening the health, culture, and livelihoods of the Inuit. It is the responsibility of the United States, as the largest source of greenhouse gases, to take immediate action to protect the rights of the Inuit and others around the world."

The Arctic is warming much more rapidly than previously known, at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the globe, according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), a four-year scientific study conducted by an international team of 300 scientists under the direction of a high-level intergovernmental forum including the United States. Increasing greenhouse gases from human activities are projected to make the Arctic warmer still, according to this unprecedented report.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) is an agency of the Organization for American States, of which the US is a member. The Inuit have a voice in the OAS - and thus the commission - through Canada, where they have their own immense and partly autonomous territory of Nunavut, covering 1.9 million square kilometers, a fifth of Canada. But although the IAHRC can issue findings, recommendations, and rulings, it is not a court, and the US has predictably indicated it will not consider itself bound by anything that emerges.

But a ruling could be the basis for lawsuits. If the Inuit gain a ruling that their human rights have been violated, it could form the basis of a case against the US government in an international court, or class-action suits in the US against the government or US energy companies, akin to the suits which have led to multibillion-dollar judgments against the tobacco companies.

One Inuit community of nearly 600 people in the Alaskan barrier island of Shishmaref faces becoming the world's first "global warming refugees". The permafrost on which their homes were built has melted and the ice that used to stop waves reaching the shore has nearly disappeared. Joe Braach, the headteacher of Shishmaref school, says: "When I moved here, the sea was 40ft (12m) from the house. Now it's about 10ft (3m)." Storms have destroyed some of the homes and the community now has little option but to move to the mainland, at a cost of $400m.

Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer, Earth Justice, New Zealand Herald, Canadian Arctic Profiles

Informant: reg


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