This policy brief is a call to action for the international community to recognize and protect the rights of climate-displaced persons. 

Ensuring the dignity and fundamental human rights of climate-displaced persons in the face of escalating climate threats is imperative. The time to act is now.

The law is a tool, to be shaped and reshaped in response to the needs of the people it serves. As we turn to face the dawning magnitude of our changing climate, humanity needs every tool in our arsenal primed and ready to protect each other from its impact.

As we move through the next era of human existence, as our individual and collective needs escalate in response to the climate crisis, what will we hold at the core of our collective focus? What will we look towards to guide our choices, and to rally around when times are dark?

There is no greater cause to rally around than human dignity.

The UN estimates that, by 2050, as many as 1.2 billion people will be displaced by climate change. At present, their rights to a life with dignity are not protected in international law.

This groundbreaking policy brief weaves together the voices of international human rights lawyers, climate modeling experts, social scientists, researchers, data analysts and indigenous and climate-frontline communities. It draws on numerous case studies from around the globe, where those under immediate threat sought asylum, resource or recompense to continue creating lives of dignity for themselves and their families.

This document is a necessary effort to define dignity in a way that is responsive to the myriad of cultural contexts in which that concept applies, and to propose a minimum legal standard for protecting and upholding it for the rising tide of people displaced by climate change. Who will be responsible for caring for them? What must that care look like? And what aid should we expect our global leaders to provide for the ones who choose to stay, remaining on the front lines of this crisis?

Though necessarily technical in nature, at the heart of this document is a very human call to safeguard the dignity of our siblings living on the frontline of the climate crisis – and, in doing so, to protect the dignity of us all.

This policy brief is a call to action for the international community to adopt inclusive, evidence-based legal frameworks that protect the rights of climate-displaced persons.

  • Inclusive Legal Frameworks: Policymakers must ensure that legal frameworks for climate-displaced persons are inclusive and context-sensitive, reflecting the diverse experiences of affected communities.
  • Evidence-Based Protections: Courts and legal systems should adopt clear standards for evidence that link climate harm to the right to life with dignity, ensuring comprehensive protections.
  • Recognition of Dignity: The international community must formally recognize dignity as a standalone right, central to safeguarding the human rights of climate-displaced persons.
ICAAD’s report incorporates lived-experience testimony and in depth cross-disciplinary research to propose an innovative and, most importantly, practicable legal standard for the right to life with dignity for climate-displaced persons. It outlines an evidentiary standard for violations of said legal standard, and goes so far as to provide a guide to incorporating scientific modelling into future cases. The legal standard and overall thesis proposed is one that Earth Refuge would readily support and indeed seek to apply in pursuance of the rights of climate-displaced people. It provides the practical, conscientious answers to the questions that those working in this field, and those experiencing these travesties, have been asking for years.
Yumna Kamel

Co-founder & Executive Director, Earth Refuge

Read the Executive Summary

Right To Life With Dignity for Climate-Displaced Persons:

The Devastating Impact of Climate Change and the Urgent Need for Legal Protections for Climate-Displaced Persons

Climate change is no longer a distant threat; its devastating impact is being felt globally, exacerbating natural disasters and causing severe environmental damage. Human activities have significantly harmed the planet, with future projections indicating even greater threats. Low-lying small island developing states (SIDS) and coastal communities are particularly vulnerable, facing severe risks such as sea level rise, high-intensity cyclones, king tides, and coral bleaching. Indigenous communities are at acute risk of losing their cultures and identities as environmental degradation erases their existence. Women, girls, and individuals living with disabilities face heightened risks from these environmental disasters, jeopardizing their fundamental right to life with dignity.

Currently, international legal protections for climate-induced displacement are insufficient, creating a significant gap within international law. Despite numerous policies and technological advancements aimed at combating climate change, there is no clear legal threshold for recognizing asylum claims due to climate-induced displacement. This leaves many without protection, compromising their human rights.

A landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in the “Teitiota case” (Teitioia v New Zealand, 2015) acknowledged the potential for environmental degradation to violate the right to life with dignity. Although the ruling did not favor the claimant, the decision set a significant precedent by recognizing that severe environmental degradation could violate international human rights norms.

The international community deserves clear guidance on how to protect the rights of climate-displaced persons. ICAAD aims to inform this discussion by proposing a legal standard on how the law should operate to fill the void in international human rights law. By considering the right to life with dignity under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ICAAD focuses on defining “dignity” by centering the culture and context of those seeking protection from climate displacement.

For the law to effectively respond to the challenges of climate displacement, it must address the lived experiences of individuals and communities. This policy brief advocates for the application of human rights protections to climate-displaced persons, emphasizing the importance of “inherent dignity” as a foundational concept in international human rights law. Policymakers and adjudicators should extend protections to the most vulnerable, ensuring their dignity and fundamental human rights are safeguarded.

The brief proposes a legal standard to determine when the right to life with dignity is violated due to climate-induced displacement and calls for rigorous scientific modeling to demonstrate the existential threats faced by climate-displaced persons. This ensures their return to their country of origin would not violate their human rights.

Key questions addressed include:

  1. When must courts intervene to protect climate-displaced persons from being sent back to their country of origin?
  2. What adaptation policies should be prioritized for internal relocation?
  3. How can local and regional policies balance preserving the culture and tradition of displaced persons while ensuring host countries develop the necessary infrastructure to support them?

ICAAD hopes to spur further discussion and research on both the application of the law and how we might more objectively measure when a person’s right to life with dignity has been violated.

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