A recent ruling by the UN’s Human Rights Committee has positive effects for individuals who are faced with deportation to countries with imminent life-threatening weather conditions.
The Committee made clear that the effect of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to violations of their rights, “Given the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realised”.
The judgement related to the case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific Island of Kiribati who now resides in New Zealand.
In 2015, Teitiota applied for protection from New Zealand after arguing his life and his family members’ lives were at risk due to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
The Republic of Kiribati is considered one of the countries most at risk of being rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels.
The Committee, however, ruled that in the time that might happen there could be intervening acts by the government to tackle rising sea levels or maybe even attempts to relocate its population.
Therefore, Teitiota lost his case on the basis that his life was not at imminent risk.
Nonetheless, the recognition of climate refugees by the Committee is an interesting development. It is not legally binding but it has the potential to develop international law in the future.
The ruling acknowledges a legal basis for refugee protection for those whose lives are imminently threatened by climate change.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, confirmed that those displaced by climate change should be treated like refugees by recipient countries.
Grandi has acknowledged that this could potentially open the floodgates for legal claims by those already displaced in countries with extreme climate conditions. The burden of proof that someone’s life is under imminent threat by climate change, however, remains high.
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