2009 Archive

Two Second-Year Students Tout Human Rights in Copenhagen

By Andrew Cohen

Two Berkeley Law students just returned from a memorable trip to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where they presented a report that urges policy makers to value human rights principles while addressing climate change.

In Protecting People and the Planet, which they wrote for the International Human Rights Law Clinic, second-year students Caitrin McKiernan and Zoe Loftus-Farren examine the potential dangers of well-meaning climate change policies. Simply constructing a hydropower dam, for example, can have implications for neighboring communities that include declining fish stocks, health problems from the construction process, and forced relocation.

McKiernan and Loftus-Farren arrived in Copenhagen December 13, and the next day spent more than four hours outside in the cold waiting to enter the conference facility to pick up their credentials. “We were lucky,” says McKiernan. “Some people waited for 10 hours.”

On December 15, they presented their paper at an event hosted by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. With rising sea levels projected to force mass displacement of coastal communities in low-lying areas over the next 25 years, McKiernan and Loftus-Farren highlighted concerns such as displaced populations’ access to food and water—and what impact their arrival in new countries may have on the resources available to those already living there.

In asking the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to establish international human rights standards, they proposed that nations share information and technical assistance that help foster climate change initiatives that incorporate these standards. During a panel on migration, the Special Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons endorsed the students’ idea of providing such guidelines, and of creating a mechanism to address the unintended human rights consequences of climate change policies.

“It was exciting to see there will likely be some inclusion of human rights language in the text that comes out of Copenhagen,” says Loftus-Farren. While struck by the thicket of thorny issues involved in confronting climate change, she believes that complexity “reinforced the relevancy and usefulness of our proposal.”

After spending months immersed in climate change literature at Berkeley, McKiernan says she was thrilled to be in Copenhagen “and actually talk to the people whose work we had cited” such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the head of the International Organization for Migration, and global NGO leaders. “It’s a testament to the strength of the clinical programs at Berkeley Law that we had the opportunity to publish a policy paper on climate change and human rights and then actually present it in Copenhagen."

McKiernan and Loftus-Farren also attended NGO strategy sessions, a plenary session, and side events that centered on such topics as migration, displacement, and how gender dynamics relate to climate change. They were astounded at the blizzard of activity around them, including the sight of officials from more than 190 nations, in one building, negotiating the inclusion of one verb over another.

Calling the conference both “enlightening and exciting,” Loftus-Farren is pleased that the report “seemed to be well received. We hope it will contribute to the current discussion on climate justice and encourage concrete action.”