Human Development Report Office
A pioneering Inuit activist whose tireless advocacy has raised global awareness about the devastating impact of climate change has won a prestigious United Nations award for lifetime achievement.
Ms. Sheila Watt-Cloutier-a political leader who represented indigenous communities in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia-helped launch one of the world's first international legal actions on climate change, contending that greenhouse gas emissions from the United States violated Inuit human rights.
"Sheila has devoted her entire life to advocacy on behalf of the Inuit people and Arctic communities. Along the way, she has also emerged as one of the world's leading campaigners against climate change-one of the most serious and pressing challenges of our time," said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who presented her with the Mahbub ul Haq Award for outstanding contribution to human development on June 20. "Sheila's work… has drawn the world's attention to the high human cost already being borne as a result of rising global temperatures."
While much of the world only recently began waking to the reality of global warming, Arctic indigenous peoples began noticing alarming changes a generation ago.
"For more than 20 years, our hunters have reported melting permafrost, thinning ice, receding glaciers, new invasive species, rapid coastal erosion and dangerously unpredictable weather," Ms. Watt-Cloutier said. "The situation is quite alarming. Climate change now affects virtually every aspect of Inuit life."
Arctic indigenous peoples are "sentinels for the rest of the world," Ms. Watt-Cloutier said. "What happens to us now will soon affect the rest of the world."
For Ms. Watt-Cloutier, it has been a long journey from her traditional Inuit childhood. Born in a small village in Canada's frozen far north, she travelled only by dogsled until she was 10. These days, Ms. Watt-Cloutier crosses continents to tell the world about the devastating impact that global warming has had on the Arctic and the urgent need for action.
"Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as a human collective. It is overarching, complex and requires immediate action. It is also probably our greatest opportunity to come together as a human race," Ms. Watt-Cloutier said. "Climate change science tells us that a window of opportunity, while brief, yet remains to save the Arctic, and ultimately, the planet."
Ms. Watt-Cloutier says her activism is inspired by her love for her family and a spiritual desire to protect their traditional way of life. As a grandmother, she especially worries about what the future could hold for her grandson, who is almost 10, and the generations to come.
The legal action she and 62 fellow Inuit filed, on behalf of all Inuit, was rejected last November by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but their pleas gained worldwide attention and sympathy. In March this year, the commission invited Ms. Watt-Cloutier to testify at its first ever hearing on climate change and human rights. It is her hope, she said, that U.S. policy and international laws will eventually change so that environmental crisis can be averted, and humanity is put on a path towards sustainable development.
Ms. Watt-Cloutier's award was created to honour Mahbub ul Haq, who created the human development approach to development and founded the global Human Development Report, an independent annual research project commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme to analyse major issues confronting humanity and recommend policy changes.
Along with Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, Ms. Watt-Cloutier also has been nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy on climate change.
"Ms. Watt-Cloutier's life work is what human development is all about: helping people live healthier lives so they can realize their full potential," said Kevin Watkins, director of the Human Development Report Office. "Her leadership and advocacy on behalf of Arctic communities have advanced the cause of human development around the world. Her strength and dedication should inspire us all."
Human Development Awards are given only every two to three years. This year, awards also were given to research teams from Costa Rica, China, the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Guinea-Bissau and the Asia-Pacific region for excellence in policy analysis and advocacy. The judging panel for the Awards included Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Princess Basma of Jordan, President Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia and Dr. Gita Sen of Harvard University and the Indian Institute of Management.
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