Climate change and internal displacement

Authors: Zanele Christine Fengu, Meron Eshetu Birhanu and Bernice Asante

“Internal Displacement and climate change are both highly complex phenomena. In the public debate we often hear about ‘climate-related displacement’ or even ‘climate refugees’, and very often this is done with a note of alert”.

The Global Classroom on Human Rights recently held its annual meeting, which was hosted by the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria with Internal Displacement as its theme. The programme featured enlightening presentations from members across the world who reflected on legal and non-legal approaches to the matter. A key message which came from the engagement was the need to adopt a climate justice approach to climate change and how our legal frameworks could embody this principle.

Climate change is an injustice, which places a disproportionate burden on those who have contributed the least to the problem. The concept of climate justice, therefore, developed as a response to the injustice and inequalities experienced by the most vulnerable communities who are being harmed through a problem that is not of their making and seeks to secure global justice. In general, it aims to make climate-related actions consistent with international human rights agreements, principles and norms. In 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that one of the negative impacts of climate change is human mobility. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) further noted that at least 7 million people were internally displaced by disasters across 104 countries and territories as of 31 December 2020.

Although climate-induced displacement has a wide range of impacts, something which was interesting was the effect it had on the right to health, particularly, mental health. The Global Campus Caucasus team presenting on this topic made a case for how this type of displacement should not be thought of in isolation as it has very real consequences on the more apparent rights such as the right to shelter and nutrition, as well as something less obvious such as mental health.

The principle of climate justice requires states to adopt a human rights-based approach to address the plights of those who have been affected by climate-induced displacement, integrate human rights in existing climate policies and be guided by human rights considerations in all climate change-related actions, including prevention, mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology. From observations, a clear trend across various parts of the world is the reluctance to use the term ‘climate justice’ in law. Perhaps this is a result of the lack of understanding of the concept and how the climate – an environmental notion, could be thought of in terms of justice – a human rights notion. The two ideas are inseparable as evidenced by the human rights implications of climatic phenomena.

Africa stood out for having one of the most progressive regional frameworks on climate change. The Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Person in Africa (Kampala Convention) is the first and the only legally binding regional instrument which extensively covers the issues of climate change as a driver of internal displacement, and mandates states to take measures to protect and assist IDPs displaced due to natural or human-made disasters, including climate change and addresses the role of multinational corporations. Apart from enhancing the protection of IDPs, the adoption of the Convention plays a vital role in encouraging states to develop IDPs laws and policies at the national level.

Another trend observed was the referral to displacements as ‘relocations’. The implications of this are that there is underreporting in displacement statistics making the matter seem less prevalent than it actually is. There is a need for states to refrain from this practice so as to allow for accuracy and for the matter to be treated with the urgency it deserves.

The impacts of climate change have been found to cause migration and increase the likelihood of conflict. This link was highlighted using case studies from Asia and South Sudan. It is a common occurrence for conflict to arise when members of a community have been displaced. This leads to a rise in tribalism and internal political instability. A prime example of this is the health impacts that arise due to forced migration and internal displacement. Population displacement compromises the provisions and distributions of medical services to the immediate population, thus making tough diseases more difficult to handle and contain. Apart from the increased risk of disease spread, other non-climate factors such as; sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking and violence are also results of internal displacement caused by climate change. The presentation, therefore, pointed out the need to understand migration and security as they are not simply linked phenomena, but an integral component of the same underlying process

It was clear from the presentations that the existence of legal measures alone would not suffice in abating the climate crisis. In addition to these, industry-specific best practices must be determined by all sectors including mining, energy, retail, etc. Stakeholders in these industries include states, multinational corporations, businesses, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and individuals. All stakeholders should endeavour to meaningfully and conscientiously participate in this initiative. Their participation should not be regarded as a matter of preference as it currently is, but rather as the default way of life. For instance, it cannot be that environmentally friendly shopping bags are still only offered as an alternative to single-use plastic bags. Commitments to lower emissions cannot be made as a mere courtesy gesture. Recycling and garbage organising must be practised from the household level to the industrial level. Environmental awareness and friendliness must become standard practice by all.

About the Authors:

Zanele Christine Fengu holds Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and Law and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of the Witwatersrand. Zanele previously worked as a legal researcher with Corruption Watch South Africa. In 2021 she was selected to be a mentee with the prestigious South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges also as a fellow of the Young African Leaders Initiative – Regional Leadership Center in Southern Africa. She currently serves as a Youth Advisory Panelist for the United Nations Population Fund in South Africa.

Bernice Asante holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the Grand Canyon University in the U.S.A, Arizona, and a Master of Jurisprudence in Rule of Law for Development from the Loyola University Chicago, in Rome Italy. She is a human rights advocate with more than two years of experience working as a legal, communications and publications fellow at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA).

Meron Eshetu Birhanu holds a bachelor degree in law from Dilla University, Ethiopia and received a gold medal award for the highest scorer graduate of law in the academic year of 2021. She has been actively involved in a variety of activities that aim to promote human rights, notably women’s and children’s rights. She also worked as an intern at Dilla University Free Legal Aid Centre.

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