UN Rules on New Protections for Climate Refugees

For climate refugees, tomorrow will be too late

Human rights advocates are cheering a landmark decision by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) mandating that governments must take into account the human rights violations caused by the climate crisis when considering the deportation of asylum seekers. In the decision, the UNHRC outlined that countries could violate people’s international rights if they force them back to countries where climate change poses an immediate threat.

As the Guardian explained, the judgment represents a legal “tipping point” and a moment that “opens the doorway” to future protection claims for people whose lives and wellbeing have been threatened due to global heating, experts say.

The Decision: CNN reported that the UN’s Human Rights Committee was making a judgment on the case of Ioane Teitiota, who applied for protection from New Zealand after claiming his life was at risk in his home country of Kiribati. The Pacific island is at risk of becoming the first country to disappear under rising sea levels.

  • The committee ruled against Teitiota on the basis that his life was not at imminent risk — but it also outlined that countries could violate people’s international rights if they force them back to countries where climate change poses an immediate threat.
  • It’s unlikely the ruling will have an immediate impact on citizens of other countries, given that even Kiribati’s dire situation did not meet the threshold for Teitiota’s claim to succeed.
  • But the decision could have a significant impact on future claims, as the number of people forced from their homes from the intensifying climate emergency grows.

However, as the Guardian pointed out: while the judgment is not formally binding on countries, it points to legal obligations that countries have under international law.

The Reaction: Amnesty International praised the decision as “good news” and said in a statement that it could help prompt the international community to take concrete action to sharply reduce fossil fuel emissions as quickly as possible in hopes of limiting global warming to 1.5º Celsius.

Why This Matters: As the Conversation explained, by the middle of this century, experts estimate that climate change is likely to displace between 150 and 300 million people. If this group formed a country, it would be the fourth-largest in the world, with a population nearly as large as that of the United States. Climate refugees are going to become an increasing proportion of asylum seekers and nations will have to adjust their immigration policies accordingly.

 

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