Africa: Addressing Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue

Photo: MRFCJ
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice
14 January 2012

Twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the promise of sustainable development will be revisited again at the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development next June.

Joining heads of state and other stakeholders at the conference aimed at securing a renewed political commitment for sustainable development will be Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice. Among the organizations with which she works closely is Femmes Africa Solidarité, coordinator of the Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC), a network of over 40 women's organizations.

Robinson was in Washington D.C last week to discuss issues of climate change, population and sustainability at a forum hosted by the Aspen Institute. She took some time to talk to AllAfrica's Bunmi Oloruntoba about climate change, how it affects the lives of the world's most vulnerable people - especially women, in countries all over Africa - and steps being taken to make climate change a human rights issue.

How does climate change affect African women specifically?

I came to the climate change issue not as a scientist or an environmentalist but as a human rights person, so I really came to it from the impact it was having on women's lives. I was in Bangladesh and other places but actually most of my experience has been in a significant number of African countries.

I had been working in the small organization 'Realizing Rights' and was traveling to different African countries on issues of public health, women, peace and security. I kept hearing, how [people's] lives are so much worse now because of the change in seasons, the dramatic flooding, the long periods of drought.

It was my realization that this was a human rights issue, because these were communities that were not climate resilient. They didn't have insurance and they were already poor, so they had been undermined in their poverty by the impact of global warming, which is the result of the greenhouse gas emissions from the rich lifestyles elsewhere in the world.

How would you push the developed world to think about this as a human rights issue and to be accountable?

Staying with a focus on women, we're creating a platform of woman leaders who are at the table. They were at the table at COP17 [the climate conference in Durban late last year], and they will be at the table in Rio, and they're committing to listening to the reality that will come forward, and to change their priorities in decision making in light of what they are hearing.

That's why I will be at the GIMAC (Gender is My Agenda Campaign) meeting with my colleagues [next week in Addis Ababa]; there are about 40 African networks involved. One that I am closest to is Femmes Africa Solidarité (which is organizing the GIMAC meeting). These networks have never worked on climate change, but they live in very vulnerable climates. Conflicts feast on poverty. We saw, for example, in Sudan - in Darfur - to some extent it was a climate impact of the drought driving the pastoralists further and disrupting their patterns. So the conflict became worse between the different sectors. This will become an increasing risk in African countries.

We will be talking to the GIMAC networks that are focused on women, peace and security, to keep that focus but also to build knowledge to become more climate-resilient. They must have their voices heard on the climate agenda - so that there will be more money for adaptation; so that there will be a perspective that this is real and is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable that we are supposed to be committed to protecting.

Leading up to RIO+ 20, we want the focus to be not only on large-scale renewable energy in emerging economies like China, Russia and India. We want to talk about the 1.4 billion people who have no access to electricity. We want to get that on the agenda and find the modalities to scale up access to energy, because these people will then immediately take themselves out of abject poverty into a more productive lifestyle.

Do you think you will get more traction if you tie climate change to security?

It is actually a security issue. The UN Security Council has addressed climate change twice. Last year they had a presidential statement - not a very strong one - so it is beginning to realize the security implications, including the implications of huge migrations of people.

That will become increasingly more important, because it will address funding issues and the concern of defense forces - in the U.S. and elsewhere.

What about ICT, women and rural issues: how do you connect those dots, because you are talking about empowering women off the grid?

I don't see that as being a problem. I think we will be talking about approaches that use social safety net systems - and develop ways, through means such as micro-credit, to have people be able to pay for solar energy in the same way that they pay for the tiny bit of kerosene. We can reach the day that the cost of a sudden illness in the family or paying school fees doesn't mean you can't buy kerosene so you stay in the dark.

Solar lighting is much, much cheaper than kerosene - I am hearing schemes that say this is possible. I am not an expert on the energy side, but I am listening to what is possible and I am saying this would dramatically change the lives of poor families and in particular women. They wouldn't have to go long distances for firewood, but children would have light in the home to learn, and they themselves would have time freed up for their own productive purposes.

Can you address the changing definition of 'sustainability' you have mentioned?

We must keep three threads: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and social sustainability, which are issues also of reproductive health and family planning. All three have to be part of the Rio agenda.

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