In a landmark decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) this month ruled that governments must consider the effects of climate change when assessing deportation of asylum seekers. Although decisions of the UN body are not legally binding, the ruling could present a precedent for asylum applications linked to climate change.
The case under consideration involved Ioane Teitiota, of Kiribati, who had sought asylum in New Zealand. He claimed that rising sea levels and other effects of climate change had made Kiribati uninhabitable due to the lack of fresh water and the increasing salinity of the soil. In addition, Kiribati is predicted to become uninhabitable in the next 10 to 15 years and Teitiota claimed his life, and that of his family, was endangered by staying there.
Having been deported in 2015, Teitiota initially brought the case against the government of New Zealand to the UNHRC in 2016.
The committee ruled in favour of New Zealand stating that Teitiota did not face any immediate danger to his life in Kiribati but despite this, UNHRC accepted that Teitiota’s claim had adequately demonstrated that the impact of climate change had had a real impact on his right to life. The committee also acknowledged that climate change does represent a serious threat to the right to life and that this must be incorporated into decision-making when considering challenges to deportation.
Human rights experts consider the ruling very important in setting a new basis that could favourably impact the success of future asylum requests linked to climate change.
Importantly, the UNHRC established that climate change can have both immediate effect (eg. a storm or bush fire can destroy a residence) and longer-range effect (eg. soil degradation affects livelihood) and that both need to be considered as legitimate reasons to seek protection.
The committee emphasised that without serious national and international action on climate change, impacts could become extreme enough to threaten the right to life, making it unlawful for states to reject climate migrants.
According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, “accepting Teitiota’s assertion that sea level rise is likely to render Kiribati uninhabitable within ten to fifteen years, the committee explained that there was sufficient time for intervening acts by the government of Kiribati, with international assistance, to protect its citizens. Without robust national and international action, however, climate change might undermine the right to life, “thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations” of countries receiving climate migrants.”
So, while Mr. Teitiota lost his appeal, the UNHRC has stressed that the international community must assist other countries seriously affected by climate change and failure to do so would result in human rights violations.