In a landmark ruling, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that governments must take into account the effects of the climate crisis when considering the deportation of asylum seekers.
The ruling, which was issued earlier this month, is the first decision by a human rights body concerning someone seeking protection due to the effects of climate change. The case could constitute an important precedent that could pave the way to asylum applications linked to climate change -- though the UN body's decisions are not legally binding.
The case of Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati
The UN committee looked specifically at the case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific nation of Kiribati. Teitiota's home country is considered to be under threat due to rising sea levels. Teitiora had applied for protection in New Zealand, saying his life was at risk. Authorities denied his claim of asylum as a climate refugee and deported him in 2015. He then brought a case against the government of New Zealand to the UN Human Rights Committee in February 2016.
Teitiota claimed that New Zealand had violated his rights by expelling him as rising sea levels and other effects of climate change had made Kiribati uninhabitable for all its residents. He referred specifically to the lack of fresh water and difficulty growing crops due to salinity of the water in his home country. He argued that because Kiribati was predicted to be uninhabitable in ten to 15 years, his life was endangered by remaining there.
UN committee rules in favor of New Zealand
The UN committee ruled that in Teitiota's specific case, New Zealand courts had not violated his rights. The committee did not find his deportation unlawful because he didn't face an immediate danger to his life in Kiribati.
However, the commitee also found that climate change represented a serious threat to the right to life. It ruled that authorities need to take this into account when examining challenges to deportation.
Committee expert Yuval Shany said the ruling sets "new standards" that could facilitate the success of future asylum requests linked to climate change.
Climate change as a reason to seek protection
The committee also clarified that people applying for asylum don't need to prove that they could deal with imminent danger if they were repatriated. It established that climate change can produce damages both through sudden events (like storms, bushfires,...) and long-term developments (like rising sea levels). Both should be considered legitimate reasons to leave and seek protection, the UN body said.
The committee also stressed the role that the international community must have in assisting countries seriously affected by climate change. It stated that without national and international efforts, the effects of climate change could expose people to human rights violations.