Climate Change: What About the Displaced?

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Already, as a result of climate change, at least 18 islands have been submerged worldwide. These include Lohachara Island in India, Bedford, Kabasgadi and Suparibhanga Island near India. Other islands are at risk of being submerged.  They include Bangladesh’s Bhola Island, half of which is permanently flooded, Kutubdia in southeastern Bangladesh with thousands of people already displaced and more to be displaced, in Shishmaref and  Kivalini of Alaska, and  Maldives, a state island in the Indian Ocean whose President wishes to relocate the entire country.

Climate change-related disasters not only affect ecosystems, but cause people to relocate either by choice or by force.  Some will be displaced within the boundaries of their affected countries (Internal Displacement or ID) and others will cross state borders. Some will be displaced because of sudden-onset hydro-meteorological disasters, such as flooding, hurricanes, landslides, etc.  Others will be affected by slow-onset disasters, like desertification, rising sea levels and droughts. Sea level rise will, in some cases, lead to permanent loss of small state islands, Maldives being an example, which means permanent displacement of the inhabitants of the island.  In high-risk zones authorities have to choose between the cost of rebuilding every time a disaster hits or of just displacing the people permanently. Furthermore, as a result of displacement, disputes over resources such as water and land will cause violence.  It is more than likely that some of the violence will end up in armed conflict.

As massive displacement continues, the affected people have very little protection.  Individual states and the international community have been discussing rights and care for climate change induced displaced people, which brings new and challenging questions to light. What is the status of people displaced by natural disasters who cross the border of their country of origin? Are they refugees? Walter Kalin, a representative of the U.N Secretary General on Human Rights of Internationally Displaced Persons, in a presentation at the American Association for International Law (ASIL) in Washington, DC, said that there is no consensus yet on the terminology regarding the displaced people as a result of affects of climate change. Under current laws, they are neither refugees nor climate refugees nor environmental migrants.

If their status were defined the question of what rights they enjoy would not be a concern. Because they are neither refuges nor migrants as defined by the 1951 refugee convention or the 1990 Migrant Worker Convention, as far as human rights is concerned, they have no guarantees. If a whole island nation were to be submerged, would its displaced people be called stateless? What would their status be in their welcoming nation?

If people in such situations arrive in the U.S. for example, they cannot request protection by citing the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.  This act provides Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for foreigners who have been victims of natural disasters with substantial, but not permanent disruption of their living conditions. In other words, this provision could be cited by those displaced, with possibilities to return to their home country once the environment is favorable for their livelihood and safety. Their state has to be temporarily unable to facilitate its people’s return. It also must have been decreed to be so.

Because climate change affects the people’s living environment, we can advocate for rights of the displaced by citing pacts and treaties that speak of a good and favorable environment as a human right.  One of them is the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (the Stockholm Declaration).  It stipulates, “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations”  (principle 1). Similarly, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (the Banjul Charter), adopted on June 27, 1981, states that “all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.” (article 24)  The Council of Europe Parliamentary assembly in its Recommendation 1614 (2003), (ii) recognizes “a human right to a healthy, viable and decent environment which  includes the objective obligation for states to protect the environment, in national laws, preferably at constitutional level.”

However, an adequate environment to live in is not the only human right in question in the case of displaced people.  There is the right to humanitarian assistance.  In the book Incorporating the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into Domestic Law: Issues and Challenges, David Fisher introduces his chapter on this question in these terms: “It would seem a relatively straightforward matter for Guiding Principles on Internally Displacement … to assert that internally displaced persons (IDPs) have the right to request and receive humanitarian assistance and to point to duties of states and humanitarian actors to provide it.  This issue is, however, more legally complex than it first appears, both with regard to the scope of the right to humanitarian assistance in international law, and its implementation in national law.”

In the African context, Mr. Fisher says that the African Charter on the Rights and Warfare of Children of 1990 is a human rights treaty that specifically refers to internally displaced peoples’ rights to receive humanitarian aid. It requires that signatory states take appropriate measures to make sure that refugee children as well as internally displaced children are protected and receive humanitarian assistance according to the clauses of the charter as well as the other international human rights and humanitarian instruments on to which these states have signed. Similarly, there is a binding pact on security, stability and development that includes protecting and assisting internally displaced persons.  It was drafted in 2006 by Africa’s Great Lakes states and entered in force in 2008.  Signatory states are required to be signatories of the UN Guiding Principles on Internally Displacement and ratify the later into their laws.  Also, in October 2009, the African Union met in Kampala, Uganda to discuss the chronic issue of displacement.  They are not only concerned about caring for the displaced, but also addressing the causes of the displacement which are mostly armed conflict and the affects of climate change.  A draft of a convention was produced for member states to sign on. There are other treaties that cover other human rights such as the right to life, water, health care, housing etc.

Today more than ever before, AFJN believes that American leadership in finding solutions to climate change and its effects on people worldwide is long overdue.  We urge the United States government and Congress to put partisan politics aside and pass without delay comprehensive climate change legislation. The U.S. has a moral obligation to proactively participate in the global effort to reduce and possibly end greenhouse gas emission which is believed to be the cause of change in climate.   AFJN urges the U.S. and all industrialized and developing nations to negotiate without delay a binding agreement aimed at reducing pollution and helping vulnerable societies adapt to the devastating effects of climate change.  Some of the most vulnerable societies are found in Africa, a continent with many nations where issues of displacement are due mostly to armed conflict.   Africa cannot afford additional displaced people due to the effects of climate change.

Originally published in the Jan-Feb edition of Around Africa

By Bahati Ntama Jacques, Policy Analyst

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