The tide comes in in Kiribati. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A groundbreaking ruling on climate refugees puts the world on notice

Ioane Teitiota may not have won this round, but the UN Human Rights Committee issued a firm warning: governments could be violating human rights if they continue to ignore the risks and consequences of climate change, writes Kate Schuetze of Amnesty International

Imagine the sea was rising day after day, inexorably eating away your land and your home. This is a living reality for many Pacific Island nations. This is a reality for Ioane Teitiota and his family on a small island in Kiribati.

Ioane Teitiota relocated from Kiribati to New Zealand in the hope of a safer, more certain future for himself and his family. After residing in New Zealand for a number of years, he applied to stay on the basis that returning him to the atoll nation would be a serious violation of his and his family’s right to life ­– a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ioane’s claim was not based on persecution by the state, but on the dramatic impact of climate change has had on Kiribati island, destroying his livelihood – and by extension his right to life – if he was to be forcibly returned there. His case was about survival in the face of a climate emergency.

Kiribati, a low-lying island nation, scarcely more than three metres above sea level, is on the frontline of the climate crisis.

Storm surges and high tides breach the sea walls, flooding homes each month. Clean water becomes more scarce. Subsistence living off traditional crops becomes harder and harder. Population growth, land scarcity and piles of waste with no means to recycle are quickly degrading the island environment and people’s livelihoods.

In 2015, Ioane and his family were sent back to Kiribati by the New Zealand Government after he failed to secure a protection visa. He refused to give up. Ioane took his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee after exhausting domestic appeals, making his case one of the first to consider the issue of “climate refugees”.

Ioane Teitiota. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

He claimed that by deporting him to Kiribati, New Zealand had violated his right to life, citing land disputes and conflict arising from lack of habitable land, and the limited availability of safe drinking water.

The UN Human Rights Committee’s collective response was groundbreaking: while it found that Ioane had had not sufficiently demonstrated the imminent nature of the threat posed by effects of climate change on Kiribati to his right to life, the committee asserted for the first time ever that the impact of climate change needed to be considered before deporting an asylum seeker.

In Ioane’s specific case, though, the committee said that while they agreed with his submission that Kiribati could become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels in around 10-15 years, it felt there was time for Kiribati and the international community to take affirmative action to address this.

Interestingly, two committee members went further than the majority opinion: Dr Vasilka Sancin, a professor from Slovenia, was deeply sceptical of government assertions that clean and safe drinking water was readily available in the country, citing UN reports and the delays by the Kiribati government in implementing its own water policies. She said that the responsibility was on New Zealand to prove that there is sufficient safe drinking water in Kiribati.

Another committee member, Duncan Laki Muhamuza, from Uganda, was even more scathing in his response: he felt Ioane presented a compelling case and had proven a risk to his right to life. He denounced the idea that we should wait for frequent climate-related deaths before the risk to the right to life was demonstrated. In his conclusion he said, “New Zealand’s action is more like forcing a drowning person back into a sinking vessel, with the ‘justification’ that after all there are other voyagers on board.”

Ioane may not have won this round, but the UN Human Rights Committee issued a firm warning to governments: they could be violating human rights, including the right to life, if they continue to ignore the risks and consequences of climate change.

Ioane may not be the world’s first climate “refugee”. But on our current trajectory, it is only a matter of time before one is recognised.

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