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Sam Humphrey & Emily Mills
February 3, 2020
UN Human Rights Committee

Human Rights Committee recognises climate change as a potential threat to universal right to life

In 2015, Ioane Teitiota was deported to Kiribati after the NZ Supreme Court dismissed his final application for leave to appeal against a decision of the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, which had held he did not qualify as a refugee or protected person. Mr Teitiota had claimed asylum in New Zealand on the basis that Kiribati was so greatly impacted by the effects of climate change that his life, and his families lives would be in danger if he were forced to return there. After his removal, Mr Teitiota submitted a communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) claiming that, by removing him, New Zealand had violated its obligations under article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) not to infringe the right to life.

The HRC has now released its decision on the communication.  The key question the Committee had to determine was whether at the time New Zealand returned Mr Teitiota to Kiribati, there were “substantial grounds for believing that there [was] a real risk of irreparable harm” to Mr Teitiota personally amounting to a violation of the right to life in Kiribati.  While the Committee ultimately held Mr Teitiota had not provided enough evidence to show the New Zealand courts had erred in their assessment of whether he personally faced such a risk at the time he was removed, it also observed that “environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life”.  In a groundbreaking observation, the Committee also recognised that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under articles 6 and 7 of the [ICCPR], thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states” in the future.  The Committee also made it clear that states have a “continuing responsibility” to consider new and updated data on the effects of climate change and rising sea levels in future deportation cases.

While the HRC’s decision is not binding, it is an authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR.  It provides a clear warning to states that unless they take urgent action to mitigate emissions of GHGs and take active steps to protect vulnerable people in low-lying areas, climate change risks could, in the near future, provide a basis for successful claims for protected person status under the ICCPR.

View the HRC decision here: