2006 Barbara Ward Lecture: Mary Robinson makes climate change a justice issue


Mary Robinson called on the international community to focus on the human rights aspect of climate change when she gave the inaugural Barbara Ward lecture in London.

Barbara Ward Lectures
A series of lectures by the current generation of outstanding women in development, in honour of IIED's founder
Mary Robinson called on the international community to focus on the human rights aspect of climate change when she gave the inaugural Barbara Ward lecture in London

Robinson, a leading international jurist and the first UN commissioner for human rights, said she always looked for the human rights dimension in any given policy area. On the issue of climate change, the relevance of human rights was clear.

She said the international community had recognised that respect for human rights was at the core of sustainable development. Human rights were part of a shared international language, and human rights instruments gave the international mulitlateral system the means of putting into practice shared values.

She told the audience at the lecture organised by IIED that climate change should be viewed as an issue of injustice.

She said: "We can no longer think about it as an issue where the rich give charity to the poor to help them cope with adverse impacts. Rather this has now become an issue of global injustice that will need a radically different framing to bring about global justice."

She said that while governments were working on international agreements to reduce climate change, they also had obligations under international human rights law. For exampe, countries working on climate change were also parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and had agreed to assist developing countries to protect children's human rights. Such legal frameworks could powerfully reinforce climate change agreements.

She said those damaged by climate change could take emitters to court. Some 20 climate change legal actions had been undertaken around the world. These included:

  • Claims against power companies for adverse environmental impacts
  • A US case requiring authorities to impose tighter controls on vehicle emissions, and
  • A case to hold Shell Nigeria to account for continued gas flaring in the Niger Delta.

She called on human rights advocates to do more thinking about climate change as a rights issue. Part of the reason for the lack of innovative ideas was the inherent emphasis to date on 'humans' in the context of human rights.

She said there needed to be more concern for the environmental stewardship that underpins so many social and economic rights.

She said: "If we cannot yet contemplate compensation by the rich to the poor for past emissions, perhaps we can agree the principle of equal rights – equal 'ecospace' – for future emissions.mProposals in the UK population to give every person a "carbon ration" would put all UK citizens on an equal footing. 

This logic could be extended globally: equal rights for emissions in the future for all the world's citizens. This would address not only intra-generational equity – a principal justice concern – but it would also address inter-generational equity, a key principle of sustainable development that Barbara Ward promoted so strongly.

Read the full text of Mary Robinson's speech.

About Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson (Photo: Neil Palmer, CIAT)


Mary Robinson is the UN Secretary-General's special envoy for climate change.

She has more than four decades of legal, political and diplomatic experience, including 20 years as a member of the Irish Senate. In 1990 she was elected President of Ireland. She was a remarkably popular president: her popularity rating reached an unprecedented 93 per cent. A key figure in highlighting the human rights issues in Rwanda, Robinson was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997.

She became UN special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa in 2013. In 2014, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon made Robinson his Special Envoy for Climate Change.

Robinson is Chancellor of the University of Dublin and for 10 years was honorary president of Oxfam. She is President of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, which works to secure justice for those affected by climate change in poor countries.

In July 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States.