Inuit climate change petition does not seek money

“Our purpose is to educate and to inform”



It was good to see the extensive coverage in Nunatsiaq News of the recent Montreal Conference of Parties to the UN climate change convention. More than 10,000 people attended from virtually every country in the world. Many Inuit attended and showed visitors from afar what climate change means in the Arctic and how it affects our culture and economy.

Following more than two years of work and with the support of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), I submitted on Dec. 7 a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about climate change. Our event at the conference about the petition got worldwide coverage. Along with Arctic Day, where Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and our regions played a large part, the launching of the petition put the Arctic and Inuit on the map.

The petition — a lengthy and compelling document — names 63 Inuit, including me, from all four regions of northern Canada and northern Alaska who provided supportive testimony. But, of course, the petition is for each and every Inuk, and it draws heavily on traditional knowledge studies completed by ITK and the regional Inuit associations.

What is the petition, what does it say, why have we submitted it, and what’s the process from here?

First, let me say what it is not. We are not suing the Government of the United States. We are not approaching a court of law. We are not seeking damages, compensation, or money.

The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which uses our traditional knowledge, as well as science, says that the Arctic is warming and melting quickly, the rate of change is accelerating, and that emission of greenhouse gases worldwide is the cause. It concludes that marine mammals including polar bear, walrus, some species of seals and some species of marine birds are threatened with extinction by the middle to the end of the century, as is our hunting and food-sharing culture.

Many people in the South think climate change is only an environmental and economic issue. To Inuit, climate change also affects the viability of our hunting-based culture and the future of our families and communities. All that we are and hope to become is affected by climate change. This is why climate change is a human and human rights issue.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., has jurisdiction over North, Central, and South America. The commission works under the 1948 Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which has been adopted and endorsed by Canada, the United States and other countries. It has dealt with and supported petitions by aboriginal peoples.

Our petition focuses on the United States for two reasons.

The United States emits about 25 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, and it refuses to join the global consensus to jointly reduce emissions, using the Kyoto Protocol to the climate change convention. In Montreal, the U.S. even argued against co-ordinated global action when the protocol runs out in 2012.

Deep and absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the developed and developing worlds are needed to slow and eventually reverse climate change in order to protect the Arctic environment and Inuit culture. This won’t happen unless the United States joins the global consensus, sets an example and shows some leadership. The current reduction of emissions in the United States is not due to the efforts of the administration, but some individual states, enlightened industries, cities, and citizens, many of whom we are working with quite closely.

The petition does not mention Canada because Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions total only three to four per cent of the world’s total, the Government of Canada has ratified the Kyoto Protocol to the climate change convention, and earlier this year Ottawa adopted a plan to honour its Kyoto commitments.

Canada needs to do much more to combat climate change. Although our petition targets the United States, it helps to add pressure to the Government of Canada to walk its talk. Canada’s rhetoric must be matched by deeds and actions.

We have targeted the United States because the petition is also part of our political strategy to influence global decision-making. Targeting Canada would not provide us the political leverage we need, and might have let the United States off the hook.

We have asked the commission to come to the Arctic to meet Inuit and to find out just what climate change means to us. Specifically, we have asked the Commission to declare that the Government of the United States is violating the human rights of Inuit affirmed in the 1948 Declaration and other international human rights instruments.

We submitted the petition not in a spirit of confrontation but as a means of inviting the United States to talk with us. Our purpose is to educate and to inform. I made these points with the Ambassador of the United States to Canada when he visited Iqaluit some weeks ago. I reminded him that American as well as Canadian Inuit were using the petition to change the attitude and policy of his government.

As we petitioned the commission I thought of the future of my eight-year old grandson and the grandchildren of many. This petition is a gift. It is an act of generosity, respect, and responsibility on our part to our children and grandchildren who will live through the projections of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment unless we act now and stand up for our rights.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is the elected Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

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