Tarawa atoll seen from the air.
Tarawa atoll seen from the air.
Photo: AP

In a landmark decision on Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Committee body ruled that the climate crisis could constitute grounds for seeking asylum.

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The decision, though not binding, could pave the way for future refugees whose rights are threatened by climate change. In just a few decades, refugees displaced by the consequences of climate change could number in the tens of millions.

“The decision sets a global precedent,” Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher said in a statement. “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.”

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The ruling came in response to the case of a man from the Pacific island state of Kiribati, which could be swallowed by rising seas as early as 2050 (a fate that awaits many similar small islands). In 2013, Ioane Teitiota applied for refugee protection in New Zealand, citing rising seas as a threat to his life. But New Zealand’s courts rejected his claim and deported him to Kiribati in 2015.

In his case, Teitiota spoke of overcrowding on the island of South Tarawa, where the population there increased from 1,641 in 1947 to 50,000 in 2010 because sea level rise has made neighboring nations uninhabitable. The overcrowding has led to increased social tension on the island.

Climate change-fueled ocean acidification has also created a shortage of fresh drinking water and problems for agriculture, which Teitiota said is causing serious health issues for his family and other Kiribati residents.

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Ultimately, the UN upheld New Zealand’s decision to reject Teitiota’s request because there are still 10-15 years before “sea level rise is likely to render the republic of Kiribati uninhabitable. In the UN’s eyes, that mean the international community could help the nation “to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population.”

That’s bad news for Teitiota. But the UN committee also ruled that “the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights.” This could open the door for other similar cases, and if climate threats are more imminent, force governments to grant refugee status.

“[This] is the first decision by an international human rights body on a case brought by a person seeking asylum due to climate change,” Chiara Liguori, a Policy Adviser with Amnesty International UK, told Earther in an email. “It basically implies that under certain circumstances, where there is stronger evidence than in Mr Teitiota’s case (either because the applicant is able to demonstrate imminent risk on their rights upon return to the country of origin, or can prove that the receiving country failed to fully assess the consequences of returning them to a country severely affected by climate change), the Committee or other bodies could rule in favour of the asylum-seeker.”

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Sumudu Anopama Atapattu, who directs UW-Madison’s Human Rights Program, said this is a good sign. “Usually under refugee law, you cannot send somebody back to their home country if they face threats to their life or are at risk of being tortured... so including climate change in these threats is a big step,” she told Earther

The problem is these applications will have to be filed on an individual basis under the current system. And as the climate crisis worsens, there could be a lot of applications to process. The climate crisis could also create legal questions unlike any the international community has ever seen.

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“There will be legal issues to address when small island states disappear completely... legally, what happens when a sovereign nation disappears,” Ataputtu said. “What happens to sovereignty, treaties, debts, if states disappear altogether? International law does not have answers because this situation has never arisen before.”

There’s also, of course, the question of where these large numbers of people will go. To properly deal with the human rights consequences of the climate crisis, international law will need to be overhauled and quickly at that.

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“I think this is good news overall, but when you think about millions of people who will be displaced, I think we need a much larger, more macro approach to this,” Ataputtu said. “This is such a long-term, overarching problem that tinkering the existing principles that were developed centuries ago is not going to help us.”

Staff writer, Earther

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