Monumental UN human rights ruling says climate refugees can’t be returned home

Village on South Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, Gilbert islands, Micronesia, Oceania. Thatched roof houses. Rural life on a sandy beach of remote paradise atoll island under palms and with mangroves around.

According to experts, judgment is the threshold that allows climate crisis claims for protection

As found by the United Nations human rights committee, it is against the law for the government to send people back to countries where the climate crisis will threaten their lives.

Expert notes that this first-of-its-kind judgment depicts a legal threshold and a period that offers future protection claims to individuals that global heating puts their lives and wellbeing under threats.

In the next 10 years, it is expected that global heating will displace tens of thousands of individuals.

The judgment is based on the case of Ione Teitota, who came from Kiribati which is a Pacific country that is under threats from the increasing sea levels. In 2013, this man submitted an application to be protected in New Zealand with the claims that his life and the lives of his family were threatened.

Evidence of overcrowding was provided to the committee concerning the island of South Tarawa, where he stayed. The evidence notes that the population moved from 1,641 in 1947 to 50,000 in 2010 because the increasing sea level made it difficult for people to live in other islands and this brought about social tensions and violence.

Similarly, he mentioned the lack of freshwater as well as salinity of the water table that led to problems with growing crops and severe health problems for his family. He claimed that because Kiribati had been projected to be uninhabitable in 10 to 15 years, staying in their country put his life in danger.

However, the protection claim of Teitiota was rejected by the New Zealand courts. The decision of New Zealand was upheld by the UN human rights committee on the basis that although Kiribati may become uninhabitable by the increasing sea level within 10 to 15 years as Teitiota noted, the timeframe was long enough to ensure the Republic of Kiribati and the international community take actions to protect and possibly relocate the citizens.

Nevertheless, experts note that the ruling of the committee allows other claims due to the threat to life that the climate issue causes. According to the committee’s ruling, the impacts of climate change may make people in receiving states to become victims of a violation of their rights; thus, leading to the non-refoulment responsibilities of the sending nations.

Kate Schuetze, a Pacific researcher for Amnesty International, says “On a personal level for Ioane and his family it is bad news because obviously it’s decided that his claim that his right to life was threatened in Kiribati wasn’t strong enough.” She continued by saying that the court noted that the personal conditions and evidence provided were not powerful enough and then strongly clarified the roles and duties of the states, claiming that international responsibility would be triggered to force other governments not to send individuals back to places where climate crisis poses risk to their lives.

Although there is no formal binding of the judgment on countries, it shows the legal responsibilities of countries as dictated by international law.

Prof Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of New South Wales said that the essential factor in the case, as well as why it is quite unprecedented, is that without strong action on climate, a time will come when the governments, as required by international human rights law, will not be allowed to return individuals to areas where their life is in danger or where they might be treated inhumanly and degradingly.

She continues by saying “Even though in this particular case there was no violation found, it effectively put governments on notice. There have been cases brought in Australia and New Zealand since the mid-1990s about environmental harm and climate change and to date, they’ve all been unsuccessful … But now we’ve got a very clear, legal authoritative statement now that it’s almost like: watch this space.”

Schuetze mentioned that Teitiota’s case was not a standalone as there were more other cases in the New Zealand court system. The individuals, usually from Kiribati and Tuvalu, made claims that the results of the climate issues have an impact on their rights to life.

Schuetze claimed, “The Pacific Islands will be the canary in the coalmines for climate-induced migrant.”

She said the message in this situation is clear: It is not a must for the Pacific Island nations to be underwater before the human right obligations become effective. She feels more of those cases will come up soon.

It is worthwhile to note that two of the 18 individuals on the committee had different opinions as they went against the conclusion of justifying the action of New Zealand to send Teitiota back to Kiribati. One of them noted that the fact that because people are not dying as a result of the situations does not mean that the situation has not reached the tipping point.

It was concluded that “The fact that this [difficulty growing crops and accessing safe drinking water] is a reality for many others in the country, does not make it any more dignified for the persons living in such conditions. New Zealand’s action is more like forcing a drowning person back into a sinking vessel, with the ‘justification’ that after all there are other voyagers on board.”

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