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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Climate Change and Struggle for Self-determination

Hegemony, Reciprocity and Identity

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Sunita Samal


The following article was written before the inauguration of the Copenhagen Summit (December 7, 2009).

Currently, ethnic and religious antagonism stand out as the most important forces shaping most of the world’s armed conflicts in the post-Cold War scenario. The United States’ civil war in 1860 is a good example of a secessionist civil war. The war in the Eritrea province of Ethiopia was internationally recognised in the 1980s. These are religious and racial conflicts which are not due to global warming or climate change or scarcity of resources. Rising food and fuel prices (oil, coal, and natural gas) are a serious threat to the world order. These are coming along with a host of other problems like global warming and population explosion. The global food crisis is plunging humanity into the gravbest of crisis of the 21st century.

An auspicious development in the field of human rights is the effort to establish a New International Humanitarian Order. In 1981, Jordan had asked the UN General Assembly to consider the establishment of a New International Humanitarian Order citing the need to strengthen the international response to human suffering caused by man-made and natural disasters. According to Jordan, the new order should provide the basis for solving the problems of poverty, refugee problem, terrorism etc. In 1982, the General Assembly referred the question to the Economic and Social Council for consideration at its second regular session in 1983 requesting the governments to submit their comments. The Economic and Social Council forwarded to its second session a draft Declaration on the New International Humanitarian Order which is yet too achieved.

The people’s right to self-determination including their rights over natural resources are of paramount importance and will assume increasing significance in the coming years. The importance of their right superseded individual rights in the environmental protection and sustainable development contexts. The Vienna Convention (1993) described poverty and social exclusion as violation of human rights. It further emphasised the positive role of humanitarian assistance to the victims of all natural and man-made disasters. The World Conference in Vienna also expressed dismay at the massive violation of human rights such as ethnic cleansing, mass exodus of refugees and displaced persons. The solution was to create a new category of legal offences—crime against humanity—under which those responsible could be punished.

The rights to self-determination and sustainable development need to be realised so as to meet equitably the development and environmental requirements of the present and future generations. Millions of the world’s most vulnerable people are facing starvation due to food shortage. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) categorically admits that the increasing scarcity of food is the biggest crisis looming over the world. Food scarcity means a big increase in the number of people going hungry.

The rights to food and fuel constitute the basis of economic self-determination. High prices have already resulted in protests around the world with riots in Mexico, dispute over food rationing in West Bengal (India), resentment over grain prices in Senegal and other part of Africa. In Yemen, children marched to highlight their hunger, while in London hundreds of farmers protested outside Downing Street. The World Bank predicts that the global demand for food will double by 2030. This is partly because the world population is expected to grow by three billion by 2050. In India, thousands of farmers took their lives, driven to despair by grain shortages and farm related debts. Soaring prices for staples have been intensified by higher fuel cost of such commodities as oil, coal and natural gas, unpredictable weather leading to enhanced use of bio-fuels, and mounting transport costs.

The rise of global temperature caused by pollution is also beginning to disrupt food production in many countries. According to the UNO, an area of fertile soil such as the size of Ukraine is lost every year because of drought, deforestation and climate instability. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that over the next 100 years, one metre rise in sea levels would flood almost a third of the world’s crop growing land.


The first UN Conference on International Environment took place in Stockholm (Sweden) way back in 1972, but so much environmental damage continues even today. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio (Brazil) evolved a plan called Agenda 21; however, that too failed in this respect. Global climate change could alter weather patterns in many regions, causing drought, floods and disruption of the natural eco-system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol adopted the formula for reducing greenhouse gases to the 1990 levels in the global North. Over a decade has passed since then. The largest polluter, the USA, ignored the Kyoto Protocol and did not even participate in any discussion relating to it. And the second largest polluter, China, got a free ride—it substantially failed to slow the levels of emission of carbon dioxide that are anticipated to cause environmental catastrophes in the coming decade.

Liberals put emphasis on the reciprocity principle for protection of human rights and preservation of the environment. Neo-liberals achieve cooperation with other nations because it is in their own interest to cooperate with others. Mercantilists pursue their own interests by keeping the others’ interests at stake. Environmental negotiations resemble trade talks by relying on reciprocity as the prime mover of any agreement. We could theorise that the reciprocity principle does not work as well as the dominance principle when the amounts of the required contributions by members are high. Toxic and nuclear wastes are a special problem because of their long-term dangers. States occasionally try to ship such waste out of the country. For instance, toxic ash from Pennsylvania became material for bricks in Guinea.

Due to free trade and protectionism, there is a problem of migration of labour from one country to another. There is the problem of food, rehabilitation and social security of migratory labour. Relations between manufacturing countries and countries with raw material are mostly hegemonic. Due to the arrival of multinational companies to the ex-colonies, there are distinct possibilities of the re-emergence of neo-colonialism with the foreign countries controlling the rulers of the former colonies and indirectly controlling their economies. Those people who migrated to foreign countries face large scale retrenchment due to recession. When hegemonic countries want to establish Special Economic Zones, there is every possibility of large scale displacement of people from their land; they also lose their home, job and social security. They do not have rights over their natural resources. Critics point out that technology had kept pace with population in the past allowing more food and other resources to be extracted from the environment even as the population was growing. At that time man was a part of nature. But now when through technology man wants to conquer nature, conditions are such that man cannot extract sufficient resources from the eivnronment to fulfil the needs of the growing population.

The hegemonic stability theory holds that hegemony provides some order similar to a Central Government in the international system, reducing anarchy, deterring aggression, promoting free trade that can be used as a world standard. For constructive theory, power politics cannot explain disaster management. It supports shared historical norms and institutions. This explains why the US and British are not a threat to each other although they are powerful militarily. But both the USA and UK contribute to the global warming and its harmful effects affect both. Acid rain produced by industrial smoke affect Canada. Water pollution often crosses the border as well, especially because industrial pollution, agricultural fertiliser and pesticides all fall in the river and travel to the sea. The Mediterranean basin is severely polluted and difficult to manage because so many states border it. In 1986, a meltdown in the Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine engendered air borne radioactivity that spread over much of Europe from Italy to Sweden. One of the fourth largest inland seas, the Aral Sea, shrank to half its size and its huge fishery was destroyed after a Soviet era mega-irrigation project, set up to help produce cotton in the desert, diverted to the Aral Sea’s inlet rivers and polluted them with pesticides.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all people have the right to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural developments. Political status implies the right to self-determination, economic, social and cultural development and also includes the sovereign right over natural resources. Political dissidents should determine their political status, that is, the right to self-determination which is both an individual and collective right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is an instrument but not a treaty. The right to property, which is mentioned in the UDHR, is not mentioned in the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. The UDHR cannot be ratified while the Covenant can be ratified. The right to property is a very controversial issue in sustainable development. Instead of it, the Covenant should bring into focus the right to self-determination which, in my opinion, is both an individual and collective right.

According to neo-functionalism, economic integration in the international sphere gives rise to political integration in the global arena. But there can be no reciprocity of interest in the long run because of the volatile nature of the environment. There will be frequent incursion of the refugees and stateless persons due to drought, cyclone and undeclared war. Most of the civil war in future will be on economy, environmental and social security issues. Collective right will prevail over individual rights. Huntington’s clash of civilisations will become a clash over the right to social security within the right of sustainable development. Both rights require fulfilment of self-determination within the context of identity wherein people have to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the interests of others.

Dr Sunita Samal is a former Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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