December 7, 2005

Inuit accuse Washington of violating human rights

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Inuit indigenous peoples formally accused Washington on Wednesday of violating their human rights by failing to do enough to fight a thaw of Arctic ice undermining their hunting cultures.

"Climate change is destroying our environment and eroding our culture," Sheila Watt-Cloutier, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, said in a statement at a 189-nation meeting in Montreal, Canada, on ways to fight global warming.

In a groundbreaking case that stopped short of a costly lawsuit, she filed a petition to a commission of the Organization of American States (OAS), grouping nations of the Americas, saying that climate change was tantamount to human rights abuse.

It urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to "recommend that the United States adopt mandatory limits to its emissions of greenhouse gases," mainly from power plants, factories and autos. The Commission has few powers.

The United States, the source of about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, pulled out in 2001 from the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, under which about 40 industrial countries have promised to cap their emissions.

Watt-Cloutier, who lives in northern Canada, said climate change meant that Inuit hunters could no longer easily track prey such as polar bears, seals or walrus, were sometimes falling through ice and were sometimes even suffering sunburn.

Indigenous settlements along the coast, meanwhile, were facing erosion because a melting of sea ice means more frequent battering by waves.

The Inuit said that the 163-page petition was backed by testimony of 63 named Inuit in Canada and Alaska.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference says it represents about 155,000 people in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. Environmentalists said the petition broke new ground as a cross-border attempt to address climate change.


"Inuit are an ancient people," Watt-Cloutier said. "Climate change is amplified in the Arctic. What is happening to us now will happen soon in the rest of the planet."

A report by more than 250 experts last year said the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, threatening indigenous livelihoods. It said Arctic sea ice could disappear in summers by 2100.

It said the Arctic melt was accelerating because darker sea or ground, once exposed, soaks up more heat than ice or snow.

The Inter-American Commission has scant powers -- it cannot award any damages -- but the Inuit hope that any of its findings might be a factor to embarrass Washington into action.

The petition urged the Commission to declare that Washington's climate policies were a breach of the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law.