The gleaming light of mid-July bounced around the ripples of water as our team approached the San Nicolò monastery in Venice, home to the Global Campus of Human Rights and venue for the Third High-Level Conference on the Global State of Human Rights, that GROW had the opportunity to attend as an observer. The third consecutive instalment of this exceptional roundtable welcomed speakers of invaluable experience, shedding light on the most pressing challenges faced by the human rights system and transforming the two-day seminar into a beacon of community for human rights defenders from all over the world. The Campus, a global network of universities providing human rights education to young professionals, has, since its foundation, strived to build capacity and raise awareness on human rights issues, and the third edition of its annual Conference on the Global State of Human Rights shines among its many engagements.
Manfred Nowak, Secretary General of the Global Campus of Human Rights, answered GROW’s inquiry on the role of the Conference in the advancement of human rights by highlighting one of the common themes of the discussion, the necessity to identify and tackle the interlinkages between different human rights challenges. “We can save our planet and survival only if we all join forces and work together in addressing the root causes of the current multiple crises. Since human rights are the foundation for both peace and sustainable development, human rights must play a major role in this global reorientation”.
Indeed, 2023 marked 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and 30 years since the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (VDPA) and the Conference itself brought together human rights professionals, academics, advocates, and students to discuss the interlinkages between the consequences of climate change, the new challenges posed by artificial intelligence, the growing democratic backsliding around the world and the necessity of breathing new life into the founding principles of the UDHR and the VDPA to guarantee the efficacy of the human rights system.
Forward-Looking Strategies for Human Rights
If the first day served as an introduction to the Conference itself, with the panellists touching upon the challenges faced by the human rights system and the growth opportunities that these entail, the second day welcomed a lively series of roundtable discussions on relevant human rights issues. The opening discussion on the importance of recognising the legacy of instruments like the UDHR and the VDPA, but also of the need to build on them to guarantee their survival, allowed the panellist to elaborate on the current socio-political context and the risks that the growing democratic backsliding poses to human rights worldwide.
Marcia V. J. Kran, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, notably underlined how the international community somewhat missed the window of opportunity to institutionalise human rights, rendering the human rights system more vulnerable to external, but often also internal, contestations and attacks. When asked about the legacy of instruments like the UDHR and the VDPA, Manfred Nowak too underlined how, at the time, “[…] Instead of celebrating the victory of democracy over autocracy, the US and other Western countries primarily celebrated the victory of capitalism over communism and even strengthened globalisation driven by neoliberal economic policies, which led to a steep increase in economic inequality and many other related crises”, underlining how the political positioning of the time fundamentally hindered the full and fair institutionalisation of a human rights system.
Therefore, the shortcomings of the international community in mainstreaming and institutionalising the funding principles of human rights set the precedent for a double-sided challenge. If on the one hand there is a need to develop novel normative frameworks to address emerging challenges, such transition would not be possible without effectively implementing the current frameworks and addressing its inherent limitations.
The discussions on the perspectives for the enrichment of the human rights system were further developed in the second panel of the day, which underlined once again the need to look back to eventually look forward, reconsidering the initial paradigm of human rights to develop a human rights strategy capable of tackling the issues of the 21st century and their intersectional effects. Among the panellists, Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, particularly voiced her concerns for the growing discrimination faced by minorities under authoritarian regimes, stressing how these local phenomena are but manifestations of a global trend of democratic backsliding. According to Síofra O’Leary too, President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), identifying the structural, legal, and political challenges faced by human rights bodies like the ECtHR is the first step in addressing these cross-sectoral manifestations, and could represent the starting point to restructure the entire human rights framework.
“Climate rights are human rights”
The inherent interlinkages between different human rights issues were especially brought to the forefront of the discussion by the third panel of the day, which focused on the climate crisis as a human rights crisis, and particularly on the causal relations between conflicts, environmental degradation, and rights of future generations. This triad was the core of Anna Ackermann’s intervention. As a board member of EcoAction and Policy Analyst for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, she particularly delved into the interconnections between the war in Ukraine and potentially-irreversible environmental damages. Touching upon the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, she notably brought to the attendees’ attention the challenges that would potentially arise in the reconstructive processes of the Ukrainian infrastructure already during and after the war, stressing the need to identify strategies to rebuild that are embedded in a framework of environmental sustainability, but also recognising that a “perfect” transition is virtually unachievable.
Concerning specifically the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, Anna Ackermann mentioned the necessity to rethink entirely the economy of the region – mainly agricultural – due to the massive environmental degradation which completely redrew the landscape of the territory. She qualified the Russian attack as ecocide, sparking a discussion on its recognition as an international crime. Ecocide is defined as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”, by the Stop Ecocide Foundation. Recognizing the crime of ecocide in national, regional, and international law represents a way to crystallise in hard law the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as well as States obligations in relation to climate and affected populations. While ecocide constitutes a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute, most environmental degradation is not criminalised as they take place in times of peace. The recognition of ecocide is all the more important as climate change is accelerating to formalise States’ obligations in regard to environmental preservation. In this respect, as mentioned by Verónica Gómez, President of the Global Campus of Human Rights and judge at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), three international courts – the IACHR, the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the law of the sea – are to deliver an advisory opinion, in the next few months, to shed light upon States obligations regarding climate change.
During this panel discussion, GROW was given the floor to ask a question related to environmental degradation and climate change as driving factors behind forced displacement and the rights of present generations to seek reparations. In many regions impacted by climate change, communities and individuals face legal and political challenges to seek and obtain reparations or access to a remedy. GROW asked whether the recognition of ecocide could represent a legal avenue to provide stronger protection for individuals and communities, and deliver a form of reparation, such as the provision of temporary protection or climate refugee status. According to Lotte Leicht, former Human Rights Watch EU director and current CEO of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, the recognition of ecocide would represent the first instance in which the international community would bring reckless behaviour against the environment to the level of a criminal offence, equating it to other international crimes and creating some form of preventive measure for companies and corporations. Indeed, Leicht stressed how such a development could represent an asset in guaranteeing the protection of the environment in commercial and industrial processes because it would create a serious criminal liability for those actors involved in dangerous activities. Communities and individuals victims of ecocide could therefore obtain some type of redress.
As a youth-led organisation, GROW could also raise its concern regarding the semantic use of the term “rights of future generations” and its potential consequences in delaying effective climate action on the part of governments. Indeed, the term “future generations” was formalised at the 1992 Rio World Summit, which concluded that “the right to development should be fulfilled so as to meet equitably the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations”. The accelerating pace of climate change has exacerbated inequalities among present generations, leading to greater vulnerability of developing countries’ populations to the effects of climate change, while developed and industrialised countries, mainly located in the Global North, are responsible for the major part of greenhouse gas emissions. Over and above the commitment to intergenerational equity made in 1992, there is an added necessity to achieve interstate justice, so that present generations living in the most-affected regions can continue to live there, while at the same time enjoying their fundamental human rights.
More than 30 years after the Rio Summit, governments and institutions continue to only mention the rights of “future generations” when referring to the necessity to address climate change, assuming climate change would only impact future generations. Nevertheless, in the meantime, climate change and environmental degradation have become tangible challenges already impacting communities in the world, especially in countries from the Global South. Climate change already sparks conflict over natural resources, hunger, poverty, and many other issues, ultimately resulting in the displacement of populations looking for a place where their human rights would be respected. Climate change is a current issue that needs to be addressed in order to think about the future. The word and concept we use to refer to climate influences the way we act. Failing to anchor in the present the threat that climate change represents to the universality of human rights perpetuates a narrative that seeks to diminish the gravity of the climate emergency, and ultimately contributes to delaying States’ climate action. It is, therefore, necessary for States and international institutions to crystallise the reality that climate change is a current issue and that climate rights are human rights, starting by operating a semantic shift in their discourse from guaranteeing the “rights of future generations” to “preserving and guaranteeing rights of present and future generations”.
Human Rights Literacy for Technological Development
The final panel of the day focused instead on the novel challenges brought about by the development of artificial intelligence (AI), drawing parallels between the processes that brought many human rights instruments to life in the past and the current debates on the ethical and human aspects of AI development. George Ulrich, Academic Director of the Global Campus of Human Rights, defined the current times as a “probing era” in which the international community finds itself trying to develop a toolbox to employ new technologies and AI in ways that are ethical and humane. Throughout the panel, a somewhat medical approach was implemented by the speakers, who, firstly, diagnosed a lack of human rights literacy in the discourse surrounding AI. According to Thérèse Murphy, Professor at Queen’s University Belfast, this lack of human rights literacy manifests itself through the marginalisation of human rights principles in the technical development of technology, transposing the discriminatory biases of real life into the standardised mechanisms of AI and creating the premises for furthering systemic oppression. This becomes particularly evident when one is to consider the already-existing cases of feedback loops and algorithms reproducing discriminatory biases and world-views that eventually impact individuals’ lives, or the potential instrumentalisation of artificial intelligence to put forth authoritarian policies and agendas. The most recent commitments of the Iranian administration to their willingness to employ AI and facial recognition to implement Hijab laws is a clear example of how the extraordinary capabilities of new technologies can quickly transform into weapons against minorities and vulnerable people. Nonetheless, the speakers still underlined the inherent power of AI and new technologies, stressing the importance of creating a human rights framework capable of taming its most controversial aspects, while still fostering its development into a tool for the advancement of society and its needs. Indeed, it is only through the implementation of a human rights perspective that the incredible power of AI can be reigned in and oriented to the pursuit of fundamental rights.
Among the invaluable expertise of the panellists, the excellent organisational schedule of the Global Campus of Human Rights, and the environment of dialogue, exchange, and connection fostered by the attendees, GROW is proud to have had the opportunity to attend such an inspiring event. As growing human rights advocates, listening to the call for governments, organisations, and institutions to foster and feature the voices of youths in decision-making processes particularly resonated with our mission and values. As GROW seeks to give young people a platform to mainstream their commitment to human rights, engaging with the conversation fostered by the Global Campus of Human Rights was incredibly moving. As actors of tomorrow’s world, our decisions will inevitably shape the future of our societies and just as it is our duty to build a more just world, it is society’s duty to trust us to do so.