The rapid warming of the Arctic is more than an environmental catastrophe. The Inuit are beginning to see it as a human rights issue as well. Their views have been presented by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international organization representing the Inuit of Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Russia, to a meeting on international climate change being held this week in Buenos Aires.

According to a story in the Online Edition of The Independent on December 16, the Inuit group announced that they planned to file a complaint about the warming of the Arctic, caused by global warming, before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), a unit of the Organization of American States. Their position is that global warming, and specifically the warming of the Arctic, threatens their way of life. It therefore represents a major human rights violation that, they argue, is caused largely by the United States.

The Inuit have standing with the IAHRC and the OAS through Canada. The OAS is not a court and cannot itself enforce any measures against the U.S. Furthermore, the United States, not surprisingly, has indicated it will not be bound by any rulings by the OAS. However, lawyers appear to be intrigued by the move of the Inuit.

If the OAS rules that Inuit human rights have, indeed, been violated, that ruling could become the basis for lawsuits filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to provide protection against greenhouse gases under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. Such a ruling from the OAS could also form the basis for class-action suits in U.S. federal courts against American corporations that contribute to greenhouse gases. It is not clear whether a convincing case could be made in court that the U.S. responsibility for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases necessarily translates into American responsibility for the reported warming of the Arctic.

A document released last month in Reykjavik at a meeting of the Arctic Council, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, (see Reuters despatch, Nov. 22) indicated that the region would probably warm between 7 and 13 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 96 years. It warned that polar bears would be in danger of going extinct and that many other forms of wildlife would experience harmful effects. Prepared by 250 scientists, the report blamed human activities for the rapid warming of the Arctic. The United States, led by the current Bush government, holds out against taking actions that will mitigate the gases that contribute to global warming.

The U.S. reaction to the news that the Inuit were preparing a human rights case based on Arctic warming was quite chilly. “When they do, we will look at what they have to say. We will consider it and respond,” responded a U.S. spokesperson.