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Climate seen as top threat to human rights

The U.N. human rights chief named the climate crisis as a top threat and expressed alarm at U.S. detention of migrant children.

GENEVA (AN) — The U.N.'s top human rights official on Monday named the climate crisis as a top threat and expressed alarm at U.S. detention of migrant children and grave concerns over global violence against religious and ethnic minorities.

Michelle Bachelet, who heads the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said climate change is a scientific reality that now affects every region of the world and the projected levels of planetary overheating will have catastrophic implications for humankind.

"Storms are rising and tides could submerge entire island nations and coastal cities. Fires rage through our forests, and the ice is melting. We are burning up our future — literally," said Bachelet, who became a pediatrician and public health advocate before starting a career in politics that led her to two terms as Chile’s president from 2006 to 2010 and 2014 to 2018.

"The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope," she told the U.N. Human Rights Council at the opening of its September session. "This is not a situation where any country, any institution, any policy-maker can stand on the sidelines. The economies of all nations; the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every state; and the rights of all your people — and future generations — will be impacted."

Like many other agency heads and officials within the United Nations, Bachelet was helping to further the goals of the 2019 Climate Action Summit that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres will host on September 23 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual high-level meetings in New York.

Bachelet, while urging better protections for environmental defenders who face attacks around the world, also spoke in defense of 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who sailed across the Atlantic to reduce her carbon footprint rather than fly to New York for the General Assembly.

Thunberg's Fridays for Future movement is inspiring school strikes among millions of young people around the world, but she also is a magnet for criticism from some political and business opponents.

"I am disheartened by this violence and also by the verbal attacks on young activists such as Greta Thunberg and others, who galvanize support for prevention of the harm their generation may bear," the U.N. human rights chief said in her statement.

Migrant children and minorities

Bachelet repeated her revulsion at conditions forced on adults and children held in detention after crossing into the United States from its southern border with Mexico. She has previously emphasized that children should never be held in immigration detention or separated from their families.

"Notably, I am alarmed that migrant children continue to be detained in centers in both the U.S. and Mexico — contravening the best interests of the child, which is a fundamental tenet of international law," she said, noting that at least 35,000 asylum seekers in the United States have been pushed back to Mexican border areas to wait for their hearings.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew the United States from the Human Rights Council last year, just weeks after OHCHR said the Trump administration was violating children’s rights under international law by breaking up families arriving from Mexico. The Trump administration accused the 47-nation council, which is the U.N.'s top human rights body, of having an “unconscionable” bias against Israel.

Bachelet voiced concerns about Israeli security forces' illegal killings and violence against Palestinians. "I continued to be alarmed by reports of unlawful killings and injuries of Palestinians by Israeli security forces across the entire occupied territory, accompanied by a lack of full accountability for instances of possible excessive use of force," she said.

She expressed worries about the plight of residents of the Indian-controlled portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan, whose population is nearly all Muslim, is seeking U.N. support for pressuring India into restoring autonomy among those portions with a Muslim majority.

"It is important that the people of Kashmir are consulted and engaged in any decision-making processes that have an impact on their future," she said.

The U.N. human rights chief said she was "deeply concerned" by the drastic acceleration of deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest and urged authorities in Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay to toughen environmental protections.

"The fires currently raging across the rainforest may have catastrophic impact on humanity as a whole, but their worst effects are suffered by the women, men and children who live in these areas — among them, many indigenous peoples," said Bachelet.

"I call on the authorities of their countries," she said, "to ensure the implementation of longstanding environmental policies and incentive systems for sustainable management, thus preventing future tragedies."