In July 2015 the New Zealand Supreme Court delivered the final verdict in an interesting legal case. Ioane Teitiota (38) had been living in New Zealand since 2007 and was granted a work visa for him and his wife. In 2011 Ioane applied for an extension on that visa, however due to a series of events, Ioane eventually became world famous for being a victim of climate change. How did this happen?
In an attempt to stay in New Zealand an interesting turn of events occurred. Ioane’s attorney argued that Ioane and his wife could not return to their home country, due to the effects of climate change. New Zealand should take them in on the grounds of Ioane and his wife being ‘climate refugees’.
Ioane and his wife could not go back home, because their home country Kiribati, is on the verge of disappearing into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Ioane’s attorney reasoned that because of failure of rich industrialised nations to adequately respond the causes of climate change, makes them indirect a cause of the problem. New Zealand being one of these offenders.
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EFJ) has estimated that that between now and 2050 around 150 million people will be displaced because of the effects of global warming. Additionally the EFJ claims that 500 to 600 million people, roughly 10% of the earth’s population are at risk of being displaced. After sea level rise and global warming, climate change gives the world the climate refugees. It indeed is the gift that keeps on giving.
What makes Ioane’s case interesting is that it shows the void in international law. Currently the only global treaty in place regarding refugees is the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is this convention the New Zealand courts, going from the High Court, to the Court of Appeal and eventually the Supreme Court, used for their judgements. Basically, all courts ruled that it was not up to them to expand the scope of the convention in order to make it applicable for those who are displaced by climate change. Thus, ruling that Ioane cannot stay in New Zealand on these grounds. From a legal perspective, their reasoning appears to be right; it is not up to a national judge to expand the scope of a treaty. Treaties are the result of an agreement between states. Additionally the convention itself leaves no room for debate regarding its range, it states very clearly the categories of when someone is considered to be a refugee and climate change is not listed as one of them.
Nonetheless, this makes the matter of climate change as a cause for displacement not less urgent. In December France is hosting COP21, the 21st edition of the Convention of Parties, at this convention countries will sign an agreement on climate change. It would be a good time then to also think about displacement.