Rich countries need to take responsibility to mitigate climate change effects seriously
Former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson tells New Age
by Saiful Huda
THE first woman president of Ireland (1990-97) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), Mary Robinson was recently in Dhaka to attend the convocation of BRAC University and deliver a public lecture on climate justice at the BRAC Centre.
Robinson, who currently runs the Mary Robinson Foundation, which works for climate justice around the world, took the opportunity of her maiden visit to Bangladesh to see the ground realities of climate change adaptation. She flew in a seaplane to Koira, an upazila in Satkhira, which was devastated by cyclone Aila-induced tidal surge on May 25, 2009.
In an exclusive interview with New Age, after her visit to Koira, Robinson lauded the resilience of people there in coping with, and adapting to, the adversities of climate and also talked about climate justice for which her organisation is campaigning. Excerpts:
What is your view about unwarranted infringement of individual freedom by the government and private organisations, which is common in almost all countries?
Every culture has its own problems. The most important and best way is to integrate. Civil society and parliament have to play their respective roles to ensure people’s rights.
But, in many countries, the role of civil society is often criticised.
There is confusion in many countries about the role of civil society. Civil society has the role to check policymakers when they make mistakes as well as support the government.
Do you think all countries that signed and ratified the UN charter on human rights ensure their citizens’ rights to enjoy civil and political life without discrimination or repression?
I wish they did. But no. Every country has citizen rights problem. It is not fair that one country lectures some other country without looking into its own violations. Human right in China has different perspective than that in the United States.
The United Nations has been talking about upholding human rights at the international and national levels. But most of the states have become coercive machineries where governments fail to uphold human rights for their citizens. Why has the UN failed to ensure that the states uphold the universal human rights?
There is a danger of lowering the role of the UN. But the standards have not changed.
One of the responsibilities of the UN is to respond to serious violations of human rights. Do you think that extrajudicial killing by law enforcement agencies and killing of unarmed and innocent persons on borders between two countries, like in the case of Bangladesh, are serious violations of human rights?
I am not specifically aware of the situation here. The UN has specialist rapporteurs whose task is to look into such incidents and report to the human rights counter at the UN.
Most of the rich countries generally use their development aids as ‘political tool’ and many countries do not uphold their commitments on development aid meant to support the poorer sections of the people. How do you see the situation?
Ireland has never worked on tied aid. It is true that some countries do have tied aids. This affects aid effectiveness.
We don’t think of climate justice anyway like trade justice. Climate justice isn’t just about mitigation and adaptation; it is also about transfer of locally sustainable tangible technology. Light, probably solar, clean cooking and water distillation for the poor people. It’s a bottom-up approach. We need to focus on enhancing access to technology. There is actually a website which is tracking reasonably and effectively the contribution of governments to the climate fund but there is no comprehensive website to put all the funds — the LDC fund, the adaptation fund, the fast-rack fund, the green fund.
If we have transparency on exactly what governments are committing to and a way of tracking it in one source, I think we would see that governments are not fulfilling their pledges and utilising the money which they commit for adapting and mitigating climate change.
Leaders in the developed countries are talking about climate justice. But most of them are unwilling to transfer good, green, low-carbon technologies to the poorest to support their right to development. How do you regard this situation?
Climate justice isn’t just about mitigation and adaptation but is also about financial support. It deals with who will be the representative of the green fund. There must be a gender perspective. What will be the role of the World Bank and the trustee? And all these things are extremely important.
The other thing is access to technologies. I think we have to address how this will come about. And it is not just feeding the market, rather bottom-up application of appropriate technologies. And then how to bring innovativeness in securing a transfer; to some extent, it has to be locally sustainable and tangible technologies.
For example, it was mentioned in the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunisation, where I was representing civil society as a chair of the board, that if you stand back from this alliance to immunise the poor children, those who are just over 10 years old will not be reached.
Just looking back very briefly, the Gates Foundation put up about $700 million in the year 2000 and UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank came together saying that we are not reaching the poor children and we have to do better. Donors, partner developing countries and governments then got involved in identification of what is to be put in place by the developing countries. The pharmaceutical companies got involved.
What the GAVI alliance did was create a market of immunising the poorest children. This philosophy has to be implemented in the case of climate change to make green technologies affordable for people in developing countries. What I have been trying to tease out of my head, but I don’t have an answer to, is how we create initial market for getting to the poorest.
I am very keen to transfer green technology for adaptation and mitigation to the developing countries. The private sector will play a very strong role here. There is lack of innovativeness and thinking in how to do it and how to do it well. How do we create an affordable product? How do we create an affordable market? Mobile phone is a glaring example of how products can be made affordable and technologies reachable to all segments of society for a better living. We need to learn lessons from these.
How do you look at the global role of the United States, especially in developing countries?
In the past, the role of the United States was obvious. It is no longer a unipolar world. There are emerging economies in the world, countries which are strong now.
Do you think that the UN in general and the Security Council in particular reflect the power balance and economic balance in the world today?
I would welcome reform of the Security Council. The 15-member council does not reflect the world forum.
What is your reaction to the US and UK governments’ moves to try WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange?
It has got long-term impacts. My own observation is that if countries say one thing and do something else, it is not fair. There seems to be a credibility gap. You have to be more frank.
What has been your experience in the field during your visit to Koira?
I have to start on a personal note. My first time in a seaplane was exciting and a very good way to see just how water-logged the areas are as we were getting closer Koira.
I wanted to have an opportunity to see the community in practice to adapt with climate change.
I was very shocked by so many people living in such fragile condition and some of them still on the embankment two years after cyclone Aila. I talked to one elderly woman, she used to have her own house and a reasonable income and now she is tucked in a very inadequate shelter with her husband and son. You could see she was very traumatised by the period as two years have passed. It has struck me.
I was happy to start with a visit to a primary school BRAC is involved in and to see the children’s school having a bench of tree knocked by wind. I think every primary school in every part of the world should have their children becoming aware of those children.
For some in the rich world it won’t be a realistic threat, but they should know that there are children for whom it is absolute reality. Those children have been four years in primary school and they will have the experience of Aila. They have seen the flooding.
The American children, the Irish children, they don’t have the experience, but we should know that is what children are already living through. It is part of creating awareness that climate change is affecting people already.
Then we met farmers and fishermen, men and women who had to adapt, had to feed crabs because crabs don’t mind the saline water. Then gift Telapia fish providing livelihood for women and their men folk. Women took a big involvement in it.
It’s not easy to adapt with something you have never done before. They had to learn new ways of how much food is needed, the technical side which BRAC has been supporting as they have to be sustainable in future.
It is the same thing with the farmers I met. Because of the salinity of the ground they were learning to grow maize and a type of rice to grow on saline land. What really impressed me, I must say, was these farmers knew exactly what the issues were. They had made the decisions. They had come away from sticking to the old rice which had not done so well. Others had grown maize for the first time.
I even joked with them because in the west of Ireland, where I grew up, small farmers are not very adaptable. But these farmers were very resilient and they were obviously benefiting.
The last thing which we saw was houses constructed to show climate resilience. One was on concrete pillars not quite high and tile roofs looked very sturdy, obviously a very impressive structure, but it is more expensive. And the other one was a home built entirely of local materials. If it is destroyed by a future strong surge or cyclone, it would be replaceable.
Local people were being given options other than being told you have to do it this way. And the whole thing was being about empowering local people. That’s a very human rights approach and it was a very generous thing to do.
Just again flying back in the seaplane, thinking of the scale when I understood what was going on down on the ground. The dykes have been damaged and need to be rehabilitated. What was missing to me, I think, was an effective strategic local government.
I have a sense that if there was a well-functioning local authority that was planning, and should have been planning, immediately after the cyclone, the rebuilding, things would have been much easier for these people. But in the absence of that, NGOs, BRAC and others, are struggling to help the people and make them very resilient. But there is a missing element that I think needs to be worked on. More evaluation part of local authority, more responsibility, more capacity to deal at local level and create enabling environment for what is going on.
What is your view about climate justice and responsibility of developing countries regarding compensation for causing climate change?
I very much take the justice view. The people I was meeting cannot be at all responsible for greenhouse gas emission. But the impact on them is more severe, and we are undermining their already fragile development, already difficult development.
As far as that is the case, I think countries like Bangladesh should be enabled effectively to address that. I don’t care whether you call it compensation or anything else; definitely there should be financial support for adaptation. There should be a better balance between mitigation and adaptation funding. And I strongly support that and I supported that in Cancun. Responsibility to mitigate has to be taken much more seriously by the rich countries that are responsible. It could be by debt relief or it could be by a number of measures. I personally have no problem with the word ‘compensation’ but I know it can lock any further discussion. So, tactically I would be inclined to try to be clever to get the same results no matter what it is called.
Source - The New Age. Bangladesh daily newspaper Date: 24.02.11.