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Having a safe climate is becoming more of a human right globally with this week's European court decision that says countries must better protect people from climate change, something warming-hit residents of the Global South long knew, said former Ireland President Mary Robinson.

Robinson, who was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, praised Tuesday’s mixed court decision as precedent-setting and change-triggering. The European Court of Human Rights sided with Swiss senior women saying their government wasn't doing enough to protect them from climate shocks, but dismissed similar complaints from Portuguese youth and France's mayor on technical grounds.

“Many countries in Europe, if not all, will be vulnerable to litigation along those lines, that their countries are not doing enough to protect the human rights,'' Robinson said in a 30-minute interview with The Associated Press at the Skoll World Forum, a conference of ideas and entrepreneurship. "If countries do not protect their people, then they may be undermining the human rights. That’s completely climate justice."

“We established the European Court of Human Rights to protect us,” said Robinson, who was the U.N. human rights chief from 1997 to 2002. “I think this is an interpretation of a reality, which is that people are suffering from climate shocks. Governments are still not taking seriously enough their responsibilities.”

The decision brings the concept of a ensuring a safe climate to the richer, developed world, which has often been shielded from the worst climate consequences unlike the poorer south, Robinson, 79, said.

Robinson, now a top official in the group The Elders, which is retired leaders, used herself as an example of how oblivious to the problem the Global North could be. In seven years as president of Ireland, she said she never mentioned climate change. As the U.N. human rights chief she knew climate change was an important issue, but it was one that another agency was handling and not a rights issue.

It was only when Robinson started working for a non-profit she started to help in Africa that she realized that climate change was a rights issue, she said.

“The shocks weren’t nearly as bad in the richer parts of the world. That was the thing that really struck me,” when she worked in Africa. “I mean, women were saying to me, ‘Is God punishing us?’”

Brazilian Indigenous environmental activist Txai Surui said it's about time: “Our reality is so far from here, from the global north. People listen about the Amazon. listen and about the Indigenous peoples, but they don’t really know what’s going on in your land. They don’t really know what means when we say that we are fighting with our lives, with our bodies.”

European court decision shows that a safe climate is a human right, former UN rights chief says. #ClimateChange #ClimateJustice #HumanRights
Txai Surui films a question from a journalist for Indigenous Peoples Minister Sonia Guajajara during the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England, on April 10, 2024. (AP Photo)

“We know that this is a human right, because we are feeling it in our skin. We are feeling it in our body,” Surui said during a break at the Skoll World Forum. And it's frustrating, she said, when people don't notice it even though Surui and others are screaming for people to notice.

“When you people close your eyes to our reality, they condemn us and condemn yourselves,” because of the importance of solving climate change, Surui said. And Indigenous people feel it hardest around the world, she added.

Robinson also highlighted a basic injustice in climate change: “It affects much earlier, much more severely, the poorest countries, poorest communities, small island states, Indigenous peoples. Within that, there’s a huge gender injustice because of the different social roles of women at different access to power, lack of access to power.”

“Inequality is sapping the system,” Robinson said. “It’s eroding a sense of being humans together on this planet when you have this incredible wealth and power that goes with us — and so many people, feeling left out and and divided.”

But Robinson has hope because Brazil will host international economic and climate negotiations over the next two years.

“I have a lot of faith in Brazil in addressing this, I think there is a real intent to address, inequality as well as sustainability and, you know, move forward,” Robinson said, mentioning the possibility of a global wealth tax. She also said world governments and banks “are spending $1.8 trillion a year on what is harming us, mainly fossil fuel subsidizing.”

Many young climate activists criticize the entire capitalistic system for warming's harms, Robinson sympathizes with them, pointing to social democracies in Ireland and Nordic nations as a better path.

“I think we do need a fairer system,” Robinson said. “What we have is a kind of rampant form of capitalism, which has been very extractive for a very long time, which has created these gaps of wealth, within countries and between countries. All of that is, you know, contrary to social stability.”

Add to that what Robinson called a form of “racist Christian nationalism” in the United States and parts of the Europe that hurts weaker people and nations. She said it's fine to be proud of your country, but not to belittle, hurt or be scared of others.

When times get tough and your back is against the wall, Robinson said that's when it is time to embrace hope and "work with what you’ve got and you try to make the difference.”

Fabiano Maisonnave contributed to this report from Oxford.

The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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