Climate change is having serious impacts on millions of people across the world and affects the full spectrum of human rights. Climate migrants are particularly hard-hit when people lose their livelihoods, homelands and legal entitlements. However, the global climate change and human rights regimes are not easily reconciled. We spoke with Dr. Anja Mihr, human rights researcher and Director of the Center on Governance through Human Rights, about human-rights-based approaches to climate challenges and the role of foreign policy.
What are the links between human rights, climate change, and migration or displacement?
Climate change affects all aspects of peoples’ private and professional lives, and thus the full spectrum of human rights. That includes social and economic human rights, such as the human right to adequate housing (in the case of forced displacement), the human right to professional development and work (in cases of sudden displacement and migration due to floods and droughts), the right to health or the right to access clean water.
Social and economic human rights are the rights most obviously affected, restricted or violated by climate change induced natural disasters or environmental degradation. The context can vary widely – those being displaced or relocated might live up on the cliffs along the coast of England or close to the rivers in the Czech Republic, or be farmers in Kenya or Bangladesh. But they all have in common that they lose their homes and their farmland or livelihood. Climate change has a global effect on social and economic human rights because it impacts peoples’ ability to ensure a basic standard of living.
Climate change induced migrants are also often deprived of political and civil human rights, such as the rights to citizenship, to public assembly, or to participate in political life and decision-making wherever one is situated. Strict immigration or asylum laws in the country or district of refuge may deny these rights to people who migrate from, say, Sub-Saharan African countries to the North or from Bangladesh to India or who are forced to leave their homes on small Pacific islands. People forced to relocate or migrate due to climate change are also not entitled to the same legal protections as those forced to leave their homes due to war or conflict.
Climate migrants are neither considered refugees nor migrant workers, both of which can enjoy at least some human rights protections. The problem is that climate change is a ‘non-actor’. The drought, floods or other natural disasters that force people to migrate are not always and under all circumstances directly linked to the changing climate. Human mismanagement, over-population or settlement policies can also be root causes of forced migration.
The global climate change (UNFCCC, COPs) and human rights regimes (UN OHCHR and Human Rights Council) are not easily reconciled, as they are grounded in very different legal and political settings. However, the concept of climate justice, for example, can go a long way to overcoming this cleavage. It allows for a rights-based approach to climate change policies, in particular with regard to the calls for the international migration regime to officially recognize climate change induced migrants as citizens with equal rights and entitlements. In contrast with other refugees or working migrants, people who migrate due to the impacts of climate change often do not have the option of returning to their homes or homeland. This is because they simply no longer exist, as in the case of small Pacific islands, coastal farmland in England or in Bangladesh.
What are main constraints on human rights approaches to climate challenges?
The main constraints are political and legal.
First, there needs to be a groundswell in public opinion to increase the will of both political actors and corporations to act at the global level and each play their different roles in changing the current human rights regime so that it legally recognises climate-change-related human rights abuses and violations.
Secondly, human rights as well as humanitarian and public international law have to be amended so as to provide these people with legal entitlements that assure their citizenship rights, their social and economic rights, and political and participatory rights. Climate change induced migrants are still considered as only being displaced on a temporary basis. But this is often not the case.
One of the biggest obstacles will be granting them full citizenship rights (in cases when they move to a country other than their own) without requiring them to give up their original citizenship. The latter often forms part of their identity and may be the only thing left of a country, farmland or homeland that simply no longer exists. Local governments of so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ around the world aim to overcome political and legal shortcomings law by simply granting these ‘illegal’ migrant rights that officially and according to existing laws they would not otherwise be entitled to.
What is your vision of a fair international legal framework for climate-induced migration?
A human-rights-based international legal framework (beyond the UNFCCC and human rights treaties) has to define the legal responsibilities and entitlements both of those contributing in one way or another to climate change and of those whose livelihoods have been dramatically affected by it. This will be a long process of negotiation and not easy. The current multi-stakeholder process at the annual COP negotiations aims to do this.
We need independent global monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that climate change does not worsen the situation for individuals, and we need effective measures that uphold full citizenship rights and therefore the political, social, economic and civil rights of migrants displaced by the impacts of climate change.
What should foreign policy do differently to advance international climate justice?
Governments need to connect global policies to local ones. Hence, in our approach to climate change policies and thus to climate justice we have to highlight the fact that climate change affects us all. The disappearance of the rainforest in Brazil or in Cambodia affects us all soon or later in form of dramatic changes in weather patterns, as we have seen in Germany, Nepal, Bangladesh or the USA this summer. In the medium and long run, hurricanes, droughts and floods will affect our way of life to such an extent that our basic and fundamental freedom rights are at a stake. But I am realistic enough to know that domestic policies often only change when there is an economic and financial incentive.
Climate change induced natural disasters and the cost of the subsequent migration and damage to public and private infrastructure can run into the billions, therefore affecting taxpayers. Perhaps this can provide an avenue for changing awareness and policies. The other aspect that has changed climate policies in recent years is the debate surrounding the rights of ‘future generations’, which was surprisingly effective in influencing foreign policy statements by governments at COP meetings.
[The interview was conducted by Stella Schaller, adelphi.]