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In what will be a historic hearing at the court, people who say their human rights have been violated due to climate change will plead their case.

Julian Medina comes from a long line of fishers in the north of Colombia’s Gulf of Morrosquillo who use small-scale and often traditional methods to catch species such as mackerel, tuna and cojinúa.

Medina went into business as a young man but was drawn back to his roots, and ended up leading a fishing organisation. For years he has campaigned against the encroachment of fossil fuel companies, pollution and overfishing, which are destroying the gulf’s delicate ecosystem and people’s livelihoods.

He says there have been huge declines in the amount of fish he and others can catch – 70% in the past decade – leading to widespread hunger in an already poor region. “We are now getting fish below the minimum size, which are the ones that could have provided us with security in the future.”

Medina is angry at the fossil fuel companies that are taking over part of the coast and have caused oil spills, and angry at the authorities that license them and undermine community attempts to restore mangrove forests. He is also deeply concerned about how warming water is bleaching the coral reefs through which his prey swims.

“We see how industrial activity is affecting our entire ecosystem,” he says. “But we also know that climate change is affecting our environment. It is a struggle and we are trying to make it visible in order to be heard.”

Medina will be telling his story this week to a panel of judges in Barbados during the first part of a historic hearing on climate change by the inter-American court of human rights.

The inquiry was instigated by Colombia and Chile, which together asked the court to set out what legal responsibilities states have to tackle climate change and to stop it breaching people’s human rights.

The detailed request seeks clarity on many issues, including children’s and women’s rights, environmental defenders, and common but differentiated responsibilities – the idea that all countries have a role to play in tackling climate change but some should bear a bigger burden. As well as mitigating and adapting to climate change, it asks how states should tackle the inevitable loss and damage.

Although climate change affects the whole world, the two countries told the court that its effects are not experienced uniformly or fairly. Their request letter warns that people in Chile and Colombia already deal with the daily consequences of the climate emergency, including droughts, floods, landslides and fires.

“These phenomena highlight the need to respond urgently and based on the principles of equity, justice, cooperation and sustainability, with a focus on human rights,” they said.

Courts around the world are increasingly making the link between climate justice and human rights. This month, the European court of human rights ruled for the first time that weak government climate policies violated fundamental human rights.

But the global south is leading the way. The Costa Rica-based court was set up in 1979 to interpret and apply the American convention on human rights, a treaty ratified by members of the Organization of American States. Twenty states have accepted its jurisdiction, including most Latin American countries and several Caribbean islands. Neither the US nor Canada have done so.

It is the third international court tasked with providing an advisory opinion on climate change, alongside the international court of justice and the international tribunal for the law of the aea. Such opinions are highly influential and set the framework for future legal action.

However, the inter-American court is the only one focusing on human rights. In a previous opinion it recognised the right to a healthy environment and affirmed that states must protect human rights affected by environmental harm, even if it happens outside their borders.

That recognition was enforced in March, when it ruled that Peru had violated the right to a healthy environment of people living in the country’s “most contaminated town”.

“The inter-American court is generally known and sees itself as a court that is much more willing to innovate with the law and to draw on sources from around the world,” said Sophie Marjanac, the accountable corporations lead at environmental law charity ClientEarth who will be speaking at the Barbados hearing.

Unlike the other courts, the inter-American court accepts written submissions from organisations and individuals, and has invited many of these to its oral hearings.

The hearing will begin with statements from the governments of Chile, Colombia and Barbados, followed by Mexico and Vanuatu. The court will then hear from UN bodies, legal experts from the Americas and further afield, local and national campaign groups, trade unions and refugee organisations. The eclectic mix of speakers includes Grupo Energía Bogotá, a large regional gas company.

One key part of the opinion tackles intergenerational equity, and the court will hear directly from youth people.

Jovana Hoschtialek, 18, a teacher and Grenadian climate campaigner, has seen significant changes in her home island. “The sea is rising, quite a few of our plants are dying and water is becoming more scarce,” she said. “Sooner or later the things that I have grown up with, my younger sisters aren’t going to be able to experience.”

Hoschitalek is preparing to tell the court about her experiences. “I want to try to tell them how important it is that the future generations can be seen because … children won’t be able to survive the harsh climate that will come if things don’t take a drastic change.”

Trina Chiemi, the founder of youth network Fast Action on Climate to Ensure Intergenerational Justice, hopes the hearing will be an empowering process. “With the inter-American court we’re able to share our voices directly, and they’re able to look and see the faces of the people that are affected.”

The court’s subsequent hearings in the Brazilian cities of Brasília and Manaus in May will include many more frontline stories from the climate crisis including people living in “sacrifice zones” in Chile, Bolivian women fighting to protect their local water supplies and Indigenous communities.

Medina and others are speaking at the hearing with the support of Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (Aida), an environmental law organisation that works in Latin America.

“A lot of issues that are going to be raised may seem disconnected,” said Marcella Ribeiro, a senior human rights and environment attorney for Aida. “But what I think is really beautiful [about] hearing from environmental defenders and communities directly is that they can pinpoint where or how these environmental issues connect with climate change. For example, environmental degradation and their ability to adapt.”

Once the opinion is published, it will have direct influence on the countries that accept the court’s jurisdiction. Legal experts say it will be an authoritative source on the obligations of states to respond to climate change, potentially boosting action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, supporting adaptation measures and helping establish mechanisms to address loss and damage.

Campaigners also hope it will invigorate existing climate lawsuits and petitions, such as those currently stalled at the inter-American commission on human rights (the court’s sister organisation), and say it could form the basis for future domestic or regional climate litigation. It could even be used by countries during arbitration claims in investor-state dispute settlements, many of which are brought by companies in extractive industries.

The opinion is expected to have an impact outside the Americas too, including on the ICJ’s pending advisory opinion. “We in the territories know something about our environment, we know what is happening,” said Medina. “Many scientists come and study what is happening and they can give context. But we who have experienced the changes … it is very important that our voices are heard.”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com

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