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Victims of climate change and the right to life

When Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe addressed COP26, 2021 conference, standing knee-deep sea water, the world’s attention was drawn towards the adverse effects of climate change on Tuvalu due to the rising sea levels. However, in 2022 at COP27, when Kofe announced that Tuvalu will be the world’s first digital nation it showed the inaction of the world towards pressing global issues. The negative impact of climate change has paved the way for the world to perceive climate change from a human rights perspective because internationally recognized rights such as the right to life, right to culture, right to reparations and several other related rights are at stake at this juncture. Nevertheless, the main focus of this article will be the right to life under international human rights law, with regard to the issues faced by the victims of climate change.

International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and the Right to life

Preambles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) refer to the inherent dignity of rights. Article 3 and Article 6 of UDHR and ICCPR guarantee the right to life respectively, and it is justifiable to argue that dignity is inherent to the right to life too. To be more specific, the United Nations General Comment 36 refers to a “dignified life,” qualifying the right to life and adding more value to it. Therefore, it is apt to elucidate how the right to a dignified life could enhance the rights of the victims of climate change.

Right to life and climate refugees

As Kofe pointed out in COP27, Tuvalu’s most precious assets are its land, ocean and culture which will be moved to the cloud to keep them safe. Re-establishing their country in the digital sphere is not a choice made by Tuvalu; they had to do it for their survival. This will soon be the predicament of most of the countries such as Maldives, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu etc., which are at the brink of disappearing due to rising sea levels. All the aforementioned countries fall under Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which face a host of unique social, economic and environmental challenges. For them, biodiversity is crucial for the survival of their livelihoods which is mostly associated with tourism and fisheries.

Tuvalu's Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, gives his speech to the delegates attending COP26 whilst stood knee-deep in the country's rising sea
Tuvalu's Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, gives his speech to the delegates attending COP26 whilst stood knee-deep in the country's rising sea. (Image credit: Reuters)

Natural disasters which occur as a result of climate change have destroyed the homes, health facilities, schools, communications, energy and transport infrastructure of these States which have created an existential threat to the citizens. Moreover, these detrimental outcomes of climate change have led to food security consequences which on the other hand have forced SIDS to rely on imported, processed food and drink. This has created two issues; firstly, it has made the population of SIDS obese and overweight, and secondly, they are subjected to high import costs. When considering these examples, it is evident that the factors which are essential for life and for survival have been destroyed by climate change, thereby violating individuals’ non-derogable right to life under UDHR and ICCPR.

Furthermore, the deterioration of the lives of these populaces over the years highlights the relationship between environmental degradation and the loss of dignity integral to the right to life. Additionally, the inability of the future generations of SIDS to enjoy the natural resources is contradictory to the principle of “inter-generational equity” found in environmental law thus impacting directly or indirectly on the quality of their lives.

To elucidate on this matter more, according to General Comment 36, Para 65, “The ability of individuals to enjoy the right to life, and in particular life with dignity, depends on measures taken by States parties to protect the environment against harm and pollution.” At this point, the question arises whether SIDS are to be blamed alone for the destruction bestowed upon their nations thus depriving of their people right to a dignified life.

According to the United Nations, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are collectively responsible for less than 1% of global carbon emissions, but they are the nations which are severely affected by climate change. Hence, it is clear that all the States in the world failed to protect these inhabitants' right to life. The dignity attached to right to life (General Comment 36, Para 3) has been totally disregarded to the extent of creating thousands of climate refugees.

For example, the disregard for “dignity” in right to life was highlighted in the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s (HRC) decision on Billy v Australia which narrowly construed the scope of the right to a dignified life. This can be identified as a negative development of law. In this case, HRC stated that there was no “real and foreseeable risk” by relying on the case Teitiota v New Zealand which is criticized as creating stringent criteria for recognizing right to a dignified life by relying on a case to decide on refugee status. However, in dissenting opinions, it is stipulated that violation of right to life coupled with dignity constitute the environment hazards which are already faced by the inhabitants and the failure of the State party to take preventative measures to alleviate the loss of lives and livelihood by climate change which further affirms one of the final arguments in the previous paragraph. Environmental degradation and the threats which are faced by the inhabitants in several forms are common to many SIDS. Therefore, it could be argued that there is a direct connection between environmental harms, the right to life and the right to a dignified life since climate change has a direct impact on the lives of people in both direct and indirect ways.

Recommendations and Conclusion

In order to better protect the right to life and to prevent climate change the following recommendations are suggested :

Based on this analysis, it is clear that the right to life with dignity is currently under threat for victims of climate change. Therefore, the right to life should be interpreted in a broad manner in order to uphold the rights of the victims of climate change.


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