Human-rights museum should document climate justice

(April 16, 2019)

Visiting a museum is supposed to make you think. It provides new information, new things to see or hear or touch. Museum displays, done well, provide a context within which those experiences are interpreted.

Visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) obviously makes you think about human rights, who has them, and what happens to individuals and to societies when those rights are not respected.

While there are bits and pieces on this theme throughout, what is missing right now is a significant, ongoing CMHR display on climate justice.

In Canada, environmental defenders are humiliated, abused, arrested or sued by developers to shut them up. Elsewhere, in places where the rule of law is either an inconvenient option or is a sham orchestrated to the benefit of the elite, those same kinds of people are simply shot.

The year 2017 was lethal for environmental defenders — more than three were murdered every week — and 2018 looks to have been just as bad. What is often left out of that story (only briefly and reluctantly reported in mainstream media) is that most of those murdered environmental defenders were Indigenous people, women and local community activists. They were protesting and working against large multinational forces from elsewhere (such as mining companies registered for convenience in Canada) whose actions are ruining the livelihoods of ordinary people and the places that these defenders call home.

In a climate-changing world where we are attempting to fulfil global goals for sustainable development, this is unconscionable. Deliberately ignoring the human consequences of ecological destruction is just as genocidal as the other historical examples CMHR displays. What is worse, it is happening right now.

Humans don’t knowingly or willingly destroy the places where they live. Even U.S. President Donald Trump won’t spray Agent Orange on his Mar-a-Lago golf course or turn it into a toxic waste dump. In the modern world, however, it seems we have no problem destroying the places where other people live.

Ecocide leads to genocide. Human rights abuses are often the result of environmental abuse. Justice for all therefore includes ecological justice, just as human rights include ecological rights.

Looking at the forced migration of millions today, numbers that will only increase as the effects of climate change worsen, ecological justice not only means changing the way we live but also changing our attitudes toward climate refugees.

Our ethical response as Canadians needs to be more than “Sucks to be you!” as we pride ourselves on having won the lottery of birth and geography, especially here in Manitoba.

Why should we expect people to stay where they are and starve, die of thirst or drown?

We wouldn’t. Consider those of many of our ancestors who emigrated to Canada to escape conditions in which they could not live — they certainly didn’t.

Compare the devastating effects of cyclone Idai on Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the threat of a similar storm on the coast of Australia. The developing African countries were slammed, with many people losing their lives during the storm and millions more at risk afterward, whereas the Australians were airlifted to safety ahead of time. Money is available in Australia to rebuild, while the African countries wait, hope and pray for promised aid that (too often) is late or never arrives at all.

We seem afraid to do more.

Fear is one way to shift public opinion, but in this situation, that fear has been misdirected at the victims. Racist and elitist elements have hijacked the narrative, promoting a fear of the Other, a fear of difference, instead of a fear of the people and institutions responsible for climate change and the political instability that fuels forced migration.

What would you do for your children and grandchildren if their survival were threatened? Why should you expect people who live somewhere else to do less for their families? And why should their survival be somehow pitted against our own, making us both into victims of the forces that profit from the misery of others? Those who golf, because they can, while the world around them burns?

These are the kind of questions that a display on environmental defenders and ecological justice would provoke in CMHR visitors.

They are also the kinds of questions we should be asking of those people who want to become — or continue to be — our political leaders. We have two election campaigns almost upon us. Climate activist Greta Thunberg reminds us that no government these days can run on its good record when it comes to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

Some governments are bigger failures than others, just as their opposition parties may offer worse alternatives.

But without major shifts in policy and actions, they will all be complicit in the ecological genocide to come.

And so will we.

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