Traditional tukul houses are partly submerged in floodwaters

Traditional tukul houses are partly submerged in floodwaters on land that was previously a residential community on November 29, 2023 in Bentiu, South Sudan.

(Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images)

'Groundbreaking' Report Calls for Protecting Rights of Climate Refugees

"ICAAD's report incorporates lived-experience testimony and in-depth cross-disciplinary research to propose an innovative and, most importantly, practicable legal standard for the right to life with dignity," an advocate said.

A human rights group on Wednesday released what it called "a gift to the international legal and climate action communities" to support their efforts to protect people around the world displaced by the fossil fuel-driven planetary emergency.

The "groundbreaking" policy brief from the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) was crafted to fill a "void in international human rights law" using the insights of Indigenous and climate frontline communities, attorneys, climate modeling experts, social scientists, researchers, and data analysts.

Already, the climate emergency is displacing people within and beyond their home countries. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 117.3 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2023 for a range of reasons. The report comes as Hurricane Beryl is leaving a trail of destruction through the Caribbean.

The Institute for Economics & Peace has estimated that by 2050, ecological disasters and armed conflict could forcibly displace about 1.2 billion people, about 10% of the global population. Given such warnings, ICAAD's report urges countries to "adopt inclusive, evidence-based legal frameworks" for climate refugees that center on "the right to life with dignity" (RTLWD).

The brief builds on a January 7, 2020 decision from the United Nations Human Rights Committee. As the document details:

Ioane Teitiota and his family sought to remain in New Zealand after migrating from Kiribati. Though the claimant identified how environmental degradation and its downstream impacts would violate his family's right to life with dignity, the majority of the committee did not find that returning the claimant to Kiribati would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), citing a lack of individualized and imminent harm. Nevertheless, the committee did provide a significant opening by recognizing that environmental degradation could be so severe as to violate Article 6, right to life (with dignity), and Article 7, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CIDT). This policy brief's analysis centers on Article 6, right to life with dignity, by first looking at the origin of the term "dignity" in legal contexts and how it should be applied today when considering climate-induced displacement.

After examining the etymology of "dignity," its use in international human rights law, and meanings in non-European philosophies and cultures, ICAAD proposed a legal standard for determining whether a climate-displaced person's RTLWD has been violated.

Under the group's standard, the right has been violated if they are deprived of, or are at risk of being deprived of:

  • Life or access to basic necessities of life, including but not limited to potable water, food, or shelter;
  • Security from serious illness or injury, whether physical or psychological; or
  • Something that is fundamental to the identity, conscience, or the exercise of human rights of the applicant and of a particular social group to which the applicant belongs, including but not limited to the ability to engage in cultural practices vital to the particular social group.

ICAAD also offered an evidentiary standard for tribunals charged with considering a displaced person's application: "An applicant is entitled to protection and nonrefoulement if there is a reasonable chance that the applicant will suffer, in the applicant's lifetime, a violation of their right to life with dignity."

"In cases where multiple similarly situated applicants with familial or community ties apply for protection, some of whom satisfy this reasonable chance standard and some of whom do not, complementary protection should be extended to a nonqualifying applicant if denying protection to the nonqualifying applicant would violate any applicant's RTLWD," the group emphasized.

The new brief points out that "the proposed legal standard could also be adopted in national immigration policies, bilateral immigration policies, and internal relocation policies," highlighting that "in May 2019, a group of eight Torres Strait Islander people submitted a complaint against the Australian Government to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, alleging that Australia's failure to protect them from climate impacts was a violation of their rights under the ICCPR."

In a Wednesday statement, Yumna Kamel, co-founder and executive director of Earth Refuge, welcomed that "ICAAD's report incorporates lived-experience testimony and in-depth cross-disciplinary research to propose an innovative and, most importantly, practicable legal standard for the right to life with dignity for climate-displaced persons."

In addition to recommending legal and evidentiary standards, she noted, the brief "goes so far as to provide a guide to incorporating scientific modeling into future cases."

"The legal standard and overall thesis proposed is one that Earth Refuge would readily support and indeed seek to apply in pursuance of the rights of climate-displaced people," Kamel said. "It provides the practical, conscientious answers to the questions that those working in this field, and those experiencing these travesties, have been asking for years."

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