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U.N. panel bolsters climate asylum seekers

Migrant farmworker Ioane Teitiota, whose family fled Kiribati's climate (Arête News/Timothy McDonald)

GENEVA (Arête News) — Migrant farmworker Ioane Teitiota lost his case against deportation from New Zealand, but in its ruling on Tuesday the U.N. Human Rights Committee said people fleeing the effects of climate change may be entitled to claim asylum.

The unprecedented ruling from a little-known expert panel that gathers three times a year in Geneva and New York concluded it is illegal for governments to send people back home to countries where their lives might be threatened by the global climate crisis.

Teitiota had filed a complaint with the U.N. committee, claiming the serious impacts of climate change — including rising sea levels swallowing up his native Kiribati and its 110,000 inhabitants — should afford his family the same status as war refugees. They cited the small island nation’s lack of fresh water and violent land disputes as primary reasons for wanting to relocate to New Zealand.

He argued New Zealand should have allowed him and his family to remain in the country as protected refugees under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a key international treaty drawn up in the wake of World War II to protect Europeans forced to flee their homes. Instead they were deported back to Kiribati in 2015, after eight years of living in New Zealand.

The U.N. committee’s 18 independent experts sided with New Zealand in deciding that Teitiota and his family’s”right to life” was not violated because — despite a dire climate threat to Kiribati’s future — the island nation seemed to be taking enough self-protective steps to adequately deal with global warming.

“Nevertheless, this ruling sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims,” one of the committee’s vice chairs, Yuval Shany, who is deputy president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of Hebrew University’s law faculty, said in a statement.

Those standards apply when governments consider climate asylum claims. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, is the global “guardian” of the 1951 treaty, while the U.N. Human Rights Committee can hear individual complaints about violations of human rights treaties.

In their ruling, the experts said “the committee is of the view that without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights” under two articles of the 1951 treaty.

They also agreed that “environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life.”

The Geneva-based committee has the responsibility of ensuring that 172 nations live up to their commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which took effect in 1976.

Though it is non-binding, the committee’s 16-page decision could clear the way for future climate migrants. It is likely to be cited as a legal precedent by people whose lives are threatened by climate change, particularly in nations with no specific provisions for people seeking asylum on such grounds.

At least 17.2 million people worldwide had to leave their homes in 2018 due to disasters exacerbated by extreme weather events linked to climate change, according to a report in May of last year from the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, part of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The U.N. committee also “clarified that individuals seeking asylum status are not required to prove that they would face imminent harm if returned to their countries.”

That is because “climate change-induced harm can occur both through sudden-onset events (such as intense storms and flooding), and slow-onset processes (such as sea level rise, salinization and land degradation),” the committee’s ruling said. “Both sudden-onset events and slow-onset processes can prompt individuals to cross borders to seek protection from climate change-related harm.”

Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC)

‘A global precedent’ for climate asylum claims

Teitiota and his wife, Angua Erika, left Kiribati in 2007, migrating on work visas to New Zealand, where she got a job as a caregiver in a nursing home in the nation’s largest city, Auckland, and he found work in farm fields and greenhouses. They built a new life and had three children in their adopted country.

But in 2010 and 2011, when Teitiota needed to get their visas renewed, a lawyer he hired let the deadlines pass; Teitiota had been unable to pay the legal fees and was unreachable at work.

So in 2012, he asked another lawyer, Michael Kidd, to take on the case. Another deadline also had expired that would have allowed for an emergency appeal to immigration authorities on humanitarian grounds. However, Kidd, a Pentecostal pastor and longtime champion of disadvantaged communities, saw the makings of a broader case symbolizing the plight of all Pacific Islanders facing the climate crisis.

The case first attracted global media attention when it went to New Zealand’s High Court in 2013. Teitiota’s asylum application was denied in 2015, and he and his family were sent back to Kiribati.

“In relation to the refugee convention, while Kiribati undoubtedly faces challenges, Mr. Teitiota does not, if returned, face ‘serious harm’ and there is no evidence that the government of Kiribati is failing to take steps to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation to the extent that it can,” the New Zealand court’s decision said.

Kiribati is just 3 meters above sea level at its highest point in the central Pacific Ocean. Satellite data indicates the ocean has been overtaking Kiribati’s shoreline by about 1 to 4 millimeters a year since 1993, compared to the global average of about 2.8 to 3.6 mm a year.

Though the U.N. committee said it accepted the premise that sea level rise is likely to render Kiribati uninhabitable, it still concluded that the island nation, with some international aid, could “take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population” in the next 10 to 15 years.

Kiribati bought more than 20 square kilometers of private land in Fiji for about $8 million 2014, and Tonga helped improve Kiribati’s shoreline and drinking water supplies. But two committee members, Vasilka Sancin of Slovenia and Duncan Muhumuza Laki of Uganda, disagreed with the committee ruling. In dissenting opinions, they said Teitiota and his family should be considered climate refugees.

Sancin, an associate law professor at the University of Ljubljana, cited a U.N. special rapporteur’s report warning that Kiribati has yet to take the steps needed to fully implement a national plan to assure safe drinking water supplies. Laki went further, saying Teitiota was being held to “unreachable” legal standards in proving the case, when the evidence of an existential threat remains undisputed.

“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,” Muhumuza, a legal advisor to Uganda’s U.N. mission in New York, wrote in his opinion. “Even as Kiribati does what it takes to address the conditions; for as long as they remain dire, the life and dignity of persons remains at risk.”

Amnesty International said Teitiota’s ground-breaking case shows governments must take into account human rights violations caused by the climate crisis when considering deportation of asylum seekers.

“The decision sets a global precedent. It says a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where — due to the climate crisis — their life is at risk, or in danger of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Kate Schuetze, a Pacific researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “The message is clear: Pacific Island states do not need to be under water before triggering human rights obligations to protect the right to life.”

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