The interconnectedness of human rights and climate change continues to grow as humans become affected by factors such as sea-level rise or erosion of arable land. The destruction of previously habitable lands will contribute to the growing number of climate refugees and migrants. These individuals leave their homes in search of a more prosperous region within their home state or another state altogether.
A ruling by a UN human rights treaty body regarding individuals seeking protection from the effects of climate change might provide backing for those seeking a new home after climate change wreaks havoc on their home state. Ioane Teitota, previously from the island of Tarawa, migrated to New Zealand after rising sea levels and other destructive effects rendered his home unlivable. He claimed that his right to life was violated after these events took place (UN News). Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the inherent right to life, which is to be protected by law. The UN determined that Teitota’s right to life had not been violated, but they did rule that individuals seeking asylum need not prove they would face immediate harm if deported back to their home countries (UN News). This ruling makes the receiving state responsible along with the home state.
Individuals like Teitota lose their dignity as human beings when climate change destroys their homelands. Receiving bare necessities like food, water, and shelter becomes difficult in these situations. The right to life exists as one of many rights attributed to individuals based on their human dignity. Human Rights advocates would point out the duty of Tetota’s homeland to provide adequate protections for climate crises. Yet, states may outside of climate crises might need to provide aid when the home state can no longer provide rights to their citizens. This scenario will become more prevalent as more people like Teitota flee their homelands and seek better living conditions.
Many of the individuals suffering from climate change already live in desperate conditions. These people in disadvantageous backgrounds, ironically, have contributed the least to greenhouse emissions, a primary cause of climate change. Changes in climate significantly impact individuals living in specific geographic locations such as coastal lands or tundra (OHCHR). Like Teitota, they may seek refuge elsewhere when their homeland can no longer support human life.
Natural disasters and climate change can displace citizens of a state along with refugees. stateless people, and the internally displaced residing there (UNHCR). Often times these individuals already live in climates regarded as hotspots, potentially leading to a second displacement (UNHCR). Borders become difficult to manage as millions of people move in and out of states looking for a more habitable environment. In 2018, 17.2 million new displaced people fled 148 countries, with one drought displacing 764,000 people in only three countries. Creating action plans for these situations along with protections is crucial to upholding the rights of these people and could potentially save many lives as well.
States exist as almost the exclusive actor in implementing human rights. They typically retain their sovereignty over their decisions. Yet, this UN ruling pushes for states to hold each other responsible during times of crises, specifically regarding climate change. States should assist others when climate change adversely affects their ability to provide human rights to their constituents (UN News). This ruling suggests that the international community can aid each other by providing asylum for those fleeing uninhabitable lands.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) utilized a rights-based approach in 2015 to persuade states to take climate action. The OHCHR signals the importance of state cooperation during climate crises in their Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change. They ask states to ensure accountability and effective remedy for human rights harms caused by climate change, specifically asking states to uphold obligations to right-holders despite boundaries (OHCHR). This message aligns with the UN ruling that protects asylum seekers from being deported without proving immediate harm.
The UN ruling and OHCHR messages include another important point; states need not be submerged in water before other states recognize the rights of climate refugees and immigrants. States cannot avoid aid if they believe citizens of another country to hold most of their rights. Rights are indivisible and having a large percentage of rights does not equate to an overall equitable and dignified lifestyle.
To what extent should states cooperate with one another within situations such as Teitota? Are providing resources, accepting refugees and migrants, or reducing emissions enough to offset natural disasters in other countries? State sovereignty remains an important factor to consider when human rights documents are accepted and implemented. Asking states to provide more than they see necessary may cause severe opposition internationally. A discussion will need to find a balance between state-to-state aid and the extent of help. The reality of climate change will continue displacing millions of people, so states will need to find a solution soon before the issue becomes too overwhelming to handle.
“UN Human Rights Ruling Could Boost Climate Change Asylum Claims.” UN News, 21 Jan. 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/01/1055671.
Martin. “Let’s Talk About Climate Migrants, Not Climate Refugees.” United Nations Sustainable Development, 6 June 2019, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/06/lets-talk-about-climate-migrants-not-climate-refugees.
OHCHR | Human Rights and Climate Change. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/HRAndClimateChange/Pages/HRClimateChangeIndex.aspx. Accessed 5 Feb. 2020.
Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for. “Climate Change and Disaster Displacement.” UNHCR, https://www.unhcr.org/climate-change-and-disasters.html. Accessed 5 Feb. 2020.