Protecting human rights at home and abroad
Energy independence is a necessary challenge
At the beginning of the year, Kazakhstan was rocked by massive protests that originated in rising gas prices. In the last days, energy-related protests have been reported from Libya. As Russia is cutting off countries that oppose its illegal and genocidal war of aggression against the people of Ukraine from gas supplies, energy prices are skyrocketing in many countries. While some governments want to keep the door open for future cooperation with Russia, the many war crimes and genocide committed by Russia, makes such cooperation impossible for the time being. Already two months ago, Russia’s official media outlet TASS reported that more than one million Ukrainians, including hundreds of thousands of children, had been transferred to Russia. How many Ukrainian children have been taken from their parents or have been orphaned and are being transferred to Russian families? Doing so amounts to a forced transfer of children, i.e., genocide, under Article 6 (e) of the Statute of the International Criminal Court. Buying hydrocarbons from Russia means providing financial support to Russia’s war. This is not compatible with the duty to combat genocide and continues European dependency.
As many European governments have failed to plan ahead and to provide for alternative sources of energy, there is a risk that Europe, too, will see major challenges with regard to domestic heating in the coming winter. In Germany, which is particularly dependent on gas imports from Russia and where a large percentage of the population do not live in their own homes but in rented apartments, there have already been demands by a government agency that the legal heating requirements be reduced. For tenants, this would mean colder apartments in the coming winter. This is something that voters in Germany vehemently oppose, highlighting a lack of solidarity with Ukraine as comfort appears to be valued more than solidarity with the beleaguered defenders of European values in Ukraine that just gained candidate status with the European Union (EU), a fact that might in part explain the reluctance of Germany’s federal government to oppose Moscow more decisively. For landlords, changing the law would mean cost savings. In any case are European countries looking at a loss of gas supplies from Russia, whether the EU outlaws gas imports from Russia or Russia will stop gas supplies.
So far, Governments fail to provide solutions. This is not merely a political problem but also one of international human rights law. Everybody has the right to live in healthy conditions. In the context of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), this can be seen as part of the right to live in a healthy environment. Globally, this right is contained in the right to adequate housing that is protected by Article 11 (1) 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In its 1991 General Comment No. 4 on the right to healthy housing, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) emphasized the links between adequate housing and human dignity and specifically included heating as one component of healthy housing. Whether the state actually does enough to honour this obligation will depend on the circumstances of the individual case. The realization of such social rights will often require structural changes and major investments. In this case, the failure to ensure energy independence can be understood as part of the problem.
Already in the COVID-19 pandemic, which for most people is far from over, it has become clear that political decision-makers often gave short-term interests precedence over their obligations under the ICESCR, which also includes a right to health in Article 12. Failing to create and maintain a regulatory and practical system, including infrastructure, that is needed to ensure adequate heating for all, can be a violation of Article 11 ICESCR.
This must not mean giving in to Russia. The obligation to oppose genocide must not be forgotten. International human rights law does not allow those in power to pick and choose among the problems they want to address. Instead, we have to tackle multiple challenges at the same time, the war, the ongoing pandemic, climate change, human rights, sustainable development, access to infrastructure, prevention of discrimination and much more. Social rights are to be realized successively, over time, to the best ability of states. This must not be an excuse to ignore one right or another. Honouring existing human rights obligations will require societal efforts that go beyond short-term concerns. Defending all human rights, including those of people who are very different from ourselves and who might live far away, is essential if freedom, democracy, and respect for international law, human rights and the rule of law are to prevail over dictatorship, genocide, death, and destruction. Securing healthy housing, including affordable energy, while becoming resource-independent from Russia and other non-democratic states, is not an obstacle but will, in the long run, be a tool in the defence of freedom. Commitment to international human rights standards will require an effort that is worth making.
About the author
Prof. Dr. Stefan Kirchner is working at the intersection of international environmental law, human rights, and the law of the sea. In addition to practising law, he has taught international law at universities in Germany, Finland, Italy, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Greenland. His most recent books include “Security and Technology in Arctic Governance” (ed., 2022), “Governing the Crisis: Law, Human Rights and COVID-19” (ed., 2021), “El Ártico y su gente - Ensayos de derecho internacional” (2020), and “The Baltic Sea and the Law of the Sea - Finnish Perspectives” (with T. Koivurova, H. Ringbom and P. Kleemola-Juntunen, 2019). This text only reflects his personal opinion.