United Nations issues landmark ruling on human rights obligations to climate migrants

Published by Brent Patterson on

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On January 20, CNN reported, “Refugees fleeing the effects of the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home by their adoptive countries, a United Nations panel has ruled.”

The UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Ioane Teitiota’s life was not at imminent risk in the Pacific nation of Kiribati due to rising sea levels, but, as the article notes, “outlined that countries could violate people’s international rights if they force them back to countries where climate change poses an immediate threat.”

“The committee cited articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which ensure an individual’s inherent right to life.”

The ruling stated, “Without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights.”

Two of the 18 members of the committee further stated, “The fact that this [difficulty growing crops and accessing safe drinking water] is a reality for many others in the country, does not make it any more dignified for the persons living in such conditions.”

The 16 page ruling can be read here.

Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of New South Wales, comments, “What’s really important here, and why it’s quite a landmark case, is that the committee recognised that without robust action on climate at some point in the future it could well be that governments will, under international human rights law, be prohibited from sending people to places where their life is at risk or where they would face inhuman or degrading treatment.”

And Kate Schuetze, Pacific Researcher at Amnesty International, says, “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.”

Climate change impacts on Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico

Peace Brigades International has field projects that accompany threatened human rights defenders in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico.

In July 2019, NBC News reported, “Climate change, when layered onto a mix of economic instability, violence and weak governance, can become fuel — a threat multiplier that could aggravate Honduras’ vulnerabilities, leaving people little choice but to flee.”

“Last summer, the Honduran government declared an emergency because of food shortages, joining governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, which issued similar alerts. Almost 100,000 families in Honduras and 2 million people across the region lacked adequate food.”

“Making matters worse, a pathogen that scientists believe is worsened by climate change has ravaged the country’s coffee plantations, which means that migrant farm laborers who count on the coffee harvest for income can’t find work.”

The Bogota Post has also reported, “Although Colombia generates only a small percentage of total global greenhouse gases, climate change is likely to hit this bio-diverse country hard. As the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) put it, ‘Colombia is at high risk from climate change impacts.’”

That article highlights, “And worse, it is Colombia’s campesinos, who have already borne the brunt of a long conflict, who are likely to be hit hardest.”

And the United Nations has noted, “Mexico has been identified as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change, many of which are irreversible.”

And Climate Reality has highlighted, “In Mexico, millions of people are at risk from a lack of adequate water due to climate change. …Water insecurity also means food insecurity. In 2011, Mexico had what was described as its worst drought on record. More than 1.7 million cattle died of starvation or thirst – and at least 2.2 million acres of crops withered across at least five states.” The hardest hit states included Chihuahua and Coahuila.

PBI accompaniment of the Saltillo Migrant Shelter in Mexico

The Peace Brigades International-Mexico Project accompanies the Saltillo Migrant Shelter which is located in the state of Coahuila on the Texas-Mexico border.

PBI-Mexico has noted, “The Saltillo Migrant Shelter offers daily humanitarian assistance — including clothes, medicines, food, rest, and medical and psychological care — to hundreds of migrants crossing Mexico to reach the United States.”

It adds, “[The shelter] also defends migrants’ rights through the documentation of cases of kidnapping, extortion, abuses and violations that they suffer during their journey through Mexico.”

Because of this migrant justice work, the staff and volunteers at the shelter have suffered harassment, surveillance and threats.

Human rights and migration

Dina Ionesco, the Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the UN Migration Agency (IOM), says, “Human rights-based approaches are key for addressing climate migration: states of origin bear the primary responsibility for their citizens’ protection even if indeed their countries have not been the main contributors to global warming; they should therefore apply human rights-based approaches for their citizens moving because of environmental or climatic drivers.”

PBI-Canada will be hosting a representative of the Saltillo Migrant Shelter on speaking tour in Ontario and Quebec this coming March. More on that soon.

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