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‘The Canary in the Coalmine’: Ioane Teitiota and The Birth of the Climate Refugee

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


On 7th January 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (“UNHRC”) released its review of the case of Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who had brought a case against the New Zealand Government in 2013. Teitiota submitted that the Government’s refusal to grant him refugee status and remain in New Zealand constituted a breach of his right to life under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (“ICCPR”). Unusually, Teitiota’s claim centred around the severe environmental problems suffered by the Republic of Kiribati, as he claimed that the Pacific Island nation’s short-term susceptibility to climate change would place the lives of himself and his family in significant danger should they be forced to return there.[1]Although the UNHRC sided with the New Zealand Government and ruled against Teitiota, they found that the climate crisis could ‘expose individuals to a violation of their rights’ that could prohibit a State from sending them back to their home countries under international law.[2]With this statement, the UNHRC recognised the potential right to claim asylum based on an environmental threat to life for the first time, providing legal recognition to the idea of a “climate

refugee”.


Climate Change and Kiribati


The Committee’s ruling reflects increasing global awareness of the potential impact the environmental crisis could have on migration. As rising sea levels and increasing global heating make vast swathes of the world uninhabitable, millions of people are at risk of losing their homes.

In 2017, an Environmental Justice Foundation (“EJF”) Study suggested that global warming could cause ‘the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen’.[3]

This view was upheld by a 2018 report by the World Bank, which predicted that around 143 million people in South Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa could become “climate migrants”.[4]The effect of such mass migration could potentially be disastrous, with the sudden influx of millions of people placing huge strain on global resources and inflaming existing political tensions.


Kiribati is perhaps the perfect illustration of the imminent dangers of global climate change. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified the small South Pacific nation as one of the six nations (all of which were in Pacific Islands) most threatened by rising sea levels.[5]According to this report, Kiribati could be completely underwater as soon as 2050,[6]an estimation revised by Teitiota in his submission before the UNHRC to just ‘10 to 15 more years’.[7]Much of the nation is just one or two meters above sea level, placing its inhabitants at short-term risk of rising sea levels.[8]The threat of climate change has already had a severe impact on Kiribati society. As more islands become uninhabitable, the population of the Kiribati capital island, South Tarawa has increased at an unsustainable rate. Since 2014, over half of the Kiribati population live in South Tarawa, giving the island a similar population density to Tokyo or London.[9]As habitable land becomes scarcer, there have been reports of violent land disputes from increasingly desperate citizens.[10]In addition, rising sea-levels have affected the amount of fresh water available for citizens. These issues make climate change a very immediate issue for Kiribati. This point was not lost on Andrew Teem, the Kiribati Senior Advisor on Climate Change, who told CNN in 2014 that climate change ‘has major implications for our people today, not in the future like some other countries’.[11]


Three years later, the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, put it more bluntly, informing the Guardian that-

‘[c]limate change for most, if not all of the countries in the Pacific is a survival issue’.[12]

The UNHRC’s Verdict and Its Potential Impact


Although the UNHRC, in its case review, recognised the possibility of attaining refugee status due to threats caused by climate change, its refusal to apply it for Ioane Teitiota suggests that the precedent has limited applicability. The majority argued that the threat to Teitiota’s life was too distant to constitute an Article 6 breach, as the 10 to 15-year timeframe ‘could allow for intervening acts by the Republic of Kiribati with the assistance of the international community, to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population’.[13]This is particularly relevant for the climate refugee, as climate change is by its nature an incremental process with a longer timeline than other potential threats to human life. In his dissenting opinion, Committee member Duncan Laki Muhumuza also took exception to the idea that there was no breach in part due to the fact that Kiribati were taking ‘adaptive measures to reduce the existing vulnerabilities and build resilience to climate change-related harms[14]and that other citizens faced the same situation as Teitiota and his family.[15]

Muhumuza suggested that this devalued the sanctity of human life for future case law, likening the New Zealand Government’s approach to-


‘forcing a drowning person back into a sinking vessel, with the “justification” that after all there are other voyagers on board’.[16]

Despite these applicability issues, the UNHRC’s decision marks an important step towards addressing the issue of the “climate refugee”. Professor Jane McAdam, the director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law, has hailed the decision as a ‘landmark case’ that provides a ‘very clear, legal authoritative statement’ on the rights of those affected by climate change.[17]However, this case impacts upon international governments as much as on potential claimants, reminding them of their duties and responsibilities to protect individuals against environmental change. With this in mind, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze referred to the Pacific Islands as ‘the canary in the coal mine for climate induced migrants’, warning the international community about this dangerous new issue that looks set to rise to prominence in the coming decades.[18]


Ed Olsen

Section Editor

Human Rights


SOURCES


[1] UNCHR ‘Views Adopted by the Committee under article 5(4) of the Optional Protocol, concerning communication No. 2728/2016’ (7th January 2020) UN Doc CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016.

[2] Ibid, 9.11.

[3] Matthew Taylor ‘Climate Change “Will Create World’s Biggest Refugee Crisis”’ (2ndNovember 2017) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/02/climate-change-will-create-worlds-biggest-refugee-crisis> accessed 25th February 2020.

[4] Melissa Godin ‘Climate Refugees Cannot be Forced Home, UN Panel says in Landmark Ruling’ Time Magazine (20thJanuary 2020) <https://time.com/5768347/climate-refugees-un-ioane-teitiota/> accessed 25th February 2020.

[5] Anna Therese Day ‘Kiribati: The World’s Next Atlantis’ (5th December 2014) CNN World <https://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/05/world/kiribati-atlantis/index.html> accessed 25th February 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] UNCHR ‘Views Adopted by the Committee under article 5(4) of the Optional Protocol, concerning communication No. 2728/2016’ (7th January 2020) UN Doc CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016, 7.2.

[8] ‘UN Landmark Case for People Displaced by Climate Change’ (20th January 2020) Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/01/un-landmark-case-for-people-displaced-by-climate-change/ accessed 25th February 2020.

[9] Anna Therese Day ‘Kiribati: The World’s Next Atlantis’ (5th December 2014) CNN World <https://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/05/world/kiribati-atlantis/index.html> accessed 25th February 2020.

[10] ‘Historic UN Human Rights Case Opens Door to Climate Change Asylum Change’ (21stJanuary 2020) United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner <https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25482&LangID=E> accessed 25th February 2020.

[11] Anna Therese Day ‘Kiribati: The World’s Next Atlantis’ (5th December 2014) CNN World <https://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/05/world/kiribati-atlantis/index.html> accessed 25th February 2020.

[12] Mike Bowers ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn: Kiribati’s Fight for Survival (23rdOctober 2017) The Guardian

[13] UNCHR ‘Views Adopted by the Committee under article 5(4) of the Optional Protocol, concerning communication No. 2728/2016’ (7th January 2020) UN Doc CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016, 9.12.

[14] Ibid, 9.12.

[15] Ibid, Annex 2 (6).

[16] Ibid, Annex 2 (6).

[17] Kate Lyons ‘Climate Refugees Can’t be Returned Home, Says Landmark UN Human Rights Ruling’ (20th January 2020) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/climate-refugees-cant-be-returned-home-says-landmark-un-human-rights-ruling> accessed 25th February 2020.

[18] ‘UN Landmark Case for People Displaced by Climate Change’ (20th January 2020) Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/01/un-landmark-case-for-people-displaced-by-climate-change/ accessed 25th February 2020.

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