UN Committee Rules Nations Can’t Turn Away Climate Refugees

The Guardian reports that legal experts have weighed in on the significance of the UN ruling, which as of now is unbinding.

The UN human rights committee upheld New Zealand’s decision on the grounds that while “sea level rise is likely to render the republic of Kiribati uninhabitable … the timeframe of 10 to 15 years, as suggested by [Teitiota], 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 experts say the committee’s ruling opens the way for other claims based on the threat to life posed by the climate crisis. The committee ruled that “the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights … thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.

Non-refoulement is  “a principle of international law providing a refugee or asylum seeker with the right to freedom from expulsion from a territory in which he or she seeks refuge or from forcible return to a country or territory where he or she faces threats to life or freedom because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

While the judgment is not formally binding on countries, it points to legal obligations that countries have under international law.

What’s really important here, and why it’s quite a landmark case, is that the committee recognised 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 Prof Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of New South Wales.

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.

Two of the 18 members of the committee issued dissenting opinions on the case, saying they did not agree with the conclusion that New Zealand was justified in removing Teitiota to Kiribati, with one writing that just because “deaths are not occurring with regularity on account of the conditions … it should not mean that the threshold had been reached.

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.


Source: The Guardian

Image: Bangkok Post


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