Inuit Seek US Attention to Global Warming

In an attempt to open a dialogue with the United States government about the effects of global warming in the Arctic region, on December 7, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the elected Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), submitted a petition to the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking protection from violations of the human rights of Inuit resulting from the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions.

The 163-page petition draws upon the traditional knowledge of hunters and elders, along with wide-ranging peer reviewed science, and is supported by testimony from 63 named Inuit from northern Canada and Alaska. The petition also documents existing, ongoing, and projected destruction of the Arctic environment, as well as the culture and hunting-based economy of the Inuit.

Watt-Cloutier spoke at the 11th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held from November 29–December 9 in Montreal.

"Inuit are an ancient people," Watt-Cloutier said. "Our way of life is dependent on the natural environment and animals. Climate change is destroying our environment and eroding our culture. But we refuse to disappear. We will not become a footnote to globalization."

The petition focuses on the US because it is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and also because it refuses to join the international effort to reduce emissions. The petition seeks the Commission to hold hearings in northern Canada and Alaska to investigate the harm caused to Inuit by global warming.

In particular, the petition asks the Commission to declare the United States in violation of rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law.

While the petitioners do not seek a monetary award for environmental damage, among their recommendations for compensation are new land roads to link isolated communities, freezers and food exchanges for hard times, and improved housing and drinking water treatment plants.

In addition, the petitioners urge the Commission to compel the US to adopt mandatory limits to its emissions of greenhouse gases and cooperate with the international community to "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system," which is the stated objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The petition also requests that the US take accountability for the damage already done to the Inuit way of life.

"This petition is not about money, it is about encouraging the United States of America to join the world community to agree to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to protect the Arctic environment and Inuit culture and, ultimately, the world," Watt-Cloutier said.

According to James Anaya, an aboriginal human rights lawyer at the University of Arizona, "The Inuit petition is an opportunity for the Commission to make a significant contribution to the further evolution of international human rights law."

While the petition is largely symbolic and doesn’t specifically call upon the US to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol, delegates of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference remain hopeful for future progress.

"We submit this petition not in a spirit of confrontation—that is not the Inuit way—but as a means of inviting and promoting dialogue with the United States of America within the context of the climate change convention. Our purpose is to educate not criticize, and to inform not condemn. [We] invite the United States of America to respond positively to our petition. As well, [we] invite governments and non-governmental organizations worldwide to support our petition and to never forget that, ultimately, climate change is a matter of human rights."