In a landmark decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has ruled that refugees fleeing the disastrous impacts of climate change cannot be sent back to their home countries.
The ruling was made on the heels of a case involving one man from Kiribati. Ioane Teitiota sought protection from New Zealand due to the threat of rising sea levels in Kiribati, according to CNN. While the committee ultimately ruled against him, claiming that his life was not in immediate danger, Teitiota’s situation highlighted a previously unanticipated problem.
Before the ruling, adoptive countries could send climate refugees back to their home countries, despite the continued threats of climate change that displaced them in the first place.
While rising sea levels in Kiribati do not pose an immediate threat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has revealed that the nation is currently one of six countries in the Pacific Islands with the highest sea levels and is at risk of becoming uninhabitable by 2050.
"Without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights," the judgment said.
As natural disasters and climate emergencies intensify, the ruling could be a significant safeguard to those fleeing their home countries in the future.
Included in the ruling were articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which state that every person has an inherent right to life and should be able to live a life free from torture.
“Given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized,” the decision said.
Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 143 million people are at risk of being displaced by the effects of climate change in a few decades, according to a 2018 World Bank report.
The increase of droughts, rising sea levels, and crop failures could force millions to flee their homes and seek refuge in countries that remain less affected.
“The decision sets a global precedent,” Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze said on Monday. “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 triggered.”