The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights

Globalization, climate change, terrorism, fair trade, human rights, health, poverty… The No-Nonsense Guides help make sense of these vast and complex issues, all in under 150 pages - providing a concise, ‘no-nonsense’ view that you can read anywhere. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting each No-Nonsense Guide in our series with blog posts from the authors concerning the subject of each book. Chapter 1 and the table of contents are available for The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights on our website.

NN Human RightsThe No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights
by Olivia Ball

I write to you from Australia, where an area bigger than Germany and France combined is under water. Filthy, noxious water and mud. Three-quarters of Queensland has been declared a disaster zone – that’s a disaster twice the size of Texas.

In a small town called Grantham, west of Brisbane, buildings were not so much filled by rising water as 'ripped to shreds' by flash flooding on 10 January, which was described as like an 'inland tsunami'.

And it’s not just Queensland. Nearly all Australian states have suffered major flooding, from north to south, east and west, which is astounding when you think of the size of this continent and its starkly contrasting regions.

My own state of Victoria down south is host to flooding described as a mobile ‘inland sea’ approximately 25 miles by 56 miles.

Like the terrifying bushfires here less than 2 years ago, this disaster – or I should say, disasters – are breaking all sorts of records for their size and ferocity.

This comes on the tail of a decade of severe drought. Our future, we’re told, is more of the same. Flood and drought – extremes rather than a genial middle ground.

My colleague Paul Gready and I wrote The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights (now in a revised edition, and published in Spanish). So why am I now writing about floods?

Because of the nexus between environmental degradation and human rights. Floods have a massive impact on human rights: the right to life, water, health, housing, clothing, work, food, education and more.

From an ecological perspective, this fragile continent downunder is said to be the first and hardest-hit by climate change, yet greater human rights impacts are found elsewhere.

Brazil is also suffering catastrophic floods. Australia’s floods have claimed dozens of human lives, yet in Brazil the toll is in the hundreds.

Wipi TV Brazil FloodAustralia has year after year of drought, yet no famine. No food riots.

Climate change contributed to the global food crisis that hit in 2008 and shows no sign of abating without significant, concerted action. Given the 1 billion hungry people in the world today and the need to increase global food production by 50% by 2050 under increasingly challenging conditions, you don’t have to be a greenie to lose sleep over climate change.

According to leading medical journal The Lancet, the biggest global health threat we face in the 21st century is not HIV, malaria, obesity or tobacco, but climate change. Since we all have a right to the highest attainable standard of health, climate change becomes a major human rights issue.

The need for climate change mitigation and adaptation is urgent, and of immense importance to human rights. Massive ‘reparations’ are owed by rich carbon-polluting nations, such as Australia, to the poorest, least culpable nations which nonetheless suffer the worst impacts of climate change.

We are generally familiar with the role of climate change in at least some floods, drought and bush-fires, typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones. Less well known, but increasingly supported by science, is how anthropogenic climate change can cause earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.

Rather than being ‘acts of God’, we may have been behind the truly appalling ‘natural’ disasters of recent times, like the Indian Ocean and Samoan tsunamis and the earthquakes in Haiti, Italy, Indonesia and China.

If it seems like ‘natural’ catastrophes are happening more and more often, you’re not wrong. According to insurance giant Munich Re, their incidence worldwide has nearly tripled since 1980.

While some parts of Australia are still under water, elsewhere the water has retreated and the gigantic task of cleaning up has begun. Meanwhile, the Gillard government wants to pay for post-flood reconstruction by axing carbon reduction programmes.

How far must we be pushed as a species before we stand together as an irresistible force insisting on climate action?


SOMETHING wonderful about Tonga is the malau, a dullbrown bird that lives on the distant northern island of Niuafo’ou, and nowhere else in the world. It buries its eggs in a deep hole in the volcanic sands to incubate unattended. When they hatch, the chicks must dig their way out; as they pop up out of the ground it is an extraordinary sight.

Tonga is remarkable amongst Pacific islands in other ways. Settled for some 3,000 years, its people are unusually homogeneous culturally, religiously and linguistically. Never fully colonized, they have forged a proud, independent and stable oasis in a sometimes unstable region.

In the 19th century, a powerful chief from the central island group of Ha’apai saw which way the colonial winds were blowing. Converting to Christianity and securing himself some key British supporters, Taufa’ahau Tupou managed through bloody conquest to unite the 170 islands of the Polynesian archipelago under his rule. He established a parliamentary monarchy and renamed himself George I after the British King.

Monarchical power in Tonga is almost absolute, with the Tupou dynasty at the helm for the last 150 years. Most famous was the loved and revered Queen Salote (1918-65). Her son, Tupou IV, now aged 85, has ruled for 38 years. As King, he initiates and vetoes legislation, and appoints the Premier and all the ministers with nepotistic flair. Nobles dominate the modest, weatherboard parliament building, while only a third of MPs are democratically elected.

A small but determined prodemocracy and human rights movement has had some success at the polls. Stopping short of advocating abolition of the monarchy, it makes bold calls for political reform in the face of corruption and growing assaults on human rights.

Within a hybrid system of feudal capitalism, Tongans pay burdensome ‘tributes’ to their noble landlord, while most Tongans are poor and rely on the support of relatives abroad. The size of the diaspora, concentrated mainly in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia and the US, now equals if not exceeds the domestic population of some 106,000.

After remittances, tourism is Tonga’s second-biggest source of hard-currency earnings. Humpback whales are a holiday highlight, yet the Government has opposed the creation of a whale sanctuary in the Pacific. Tonga denounced nuclear testing in the region, but sought to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ which littered Iraq with depleted uranium. This tiny nation currently has troops stationed in the Solomon Islands, and Australia is paying for the expansion of the Tonga Defence Force.

As Tupou IV clings to life and the throne (defying regular rumours to the contrary), his three surviving children, each wealthy and powerful, enter middle age. Most observers predict political and economic change will come to the islands when the supercilious Crown Prince Tupouto’a assumes the throne, though opinion is divided as to whether it will be for the better or worse.

Questions about the future of Tonga may be overtaken by rising sea levels. Salination of the soil by this means threatens to make this largely subsistence and cash-crop-dependent society unsustainable long before the lower atolls are actually inundated. This is just one issue vital to the life of the nation that never gets an adequate airing. While local media are bought or gagged, debate must be concealed behind pandanus fans and confined to late-night circles drinking kava.

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