U.N. Ruling Opens Doors For Climate Refugees

In a recent ruling, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared it unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives may be threatened by the climate crisis. This judgment is centered around the case on Ioane Teitiota from the Pacific Island of Kiribati, which is threatened by rising sea levels resulting from global warming. Teitiota said that, due to the climate crisis, he had difficulty accessing safe drinking water and faced land disputes. He was forced to migrate with his family to New Zealand and applied for refugee status. As Kiribati and other low-lying island nations may become uninhabitable within the next decade, Teitiota argued that his and his family’s lives were at risk. New Zealand courts rejected his claim for protection, and the U.N. committee upheld this decision. However, it also ruled that the climate crisis could “expose individuals to a violation of their rights … thereby triggering the non-refoulment obligations of sending states”.

Since Kiribati will only become uninhabitable within 10 or 15 years, the committee concluded that this “could allow for intervening acts by the republic of Kiribati, with the assistance of the international community, to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population.” However, emphasizing that the climate crisis is a human rights issue prohibits states, under international law, from sending refugees back to their home countries. The committee cited articles 6 and 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which secures a person’s right to life. “The decision sets a global precedent,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher. “It says a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where – due to the climate crisis – their life is at risk, or in danger of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment triggered.” While the U.N.’s judgment is not binding, it does emphasize the very real threat that climate change poses and the legal responsibility of states to protect those who may be impacted. “What’s really important here … is that the committee recognized that without robust action on climate at some point in the future it could well be that governments will, under international human rights law, be prohibited from sending people to places where their life is at risk or where they would face inhuman or degrading treatment,” said Professor Jane McAdam of the University of New South Wales.

The importance of this decision cannot be overlooked. While there is a focus on lowering global carbon emissions – a goal that is still vital – it is likely already too late for low lying island nations based on current sea-level rise predictions. Countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives are mere meters above sea level. These regions will experience the largest relative increase in flood risk due to sea-level rise in the coming century, and at present are experiencing the brunt of the impacts of climate change in the form of frequent coastal inundation alongside floods and storms of increasing severity. Therefore, the need for climate refugees to be acknowledged and protected is greater than ever before. “Pacific Island states don’t need to be underwater before triggering those human rights obligations … I think we will see those cases start to emerge” said Schuetze.

Millions have already been displaced by the climate crisis, with entire islands and regions of land becoming uninhabitable, and natural disasters increasing in frequency and severity. In a 2018 report, the World Bank predicted that 143 million people in South Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa could become climate migrants. So, while the U.N. found that protection wasn’t necessary in the case of Ioane Teitiota, the judgment has opened the doors for future climate refugees.