Higher Ground: Human Rights Protections for Climate-forced Displacement

  • Robin Bronen Executive Director
    Alaska Institute for Justice

Many of the communities that are now on the front lines of relocation away from rising sea levels and eroding coastlines are those that have done the least to cause the climate crisis. These groups often bear the brunt of institutional and structural racism, the ongoing legacies of slavery and colonization. In the United States, settler colonialism created the legal and institutional structures that forcibly removed Indigenous populations from their traditional lands to locations vulnerable to accelerating environmental change. In the process, Indigenous peoples’ land was recast as property and as a resource. Settler colonialism is an ongoing system of power that perpetuates the repression of indigenous peoples and includes intersectional forms of oppression, including racism. How can the human rights of those forced to relocate be protected when climate vulnerability cannot be disentangled from these legacies?

A new governance framework is needed to guide federal, state, local and tribal government institutions in supporting relocation. When environmental and social thresholds are surpassed, and climate hazards harm the health and well-being of community residents, institutions must shift efforts from protecting people in the places where they live to creating a relocation process. Determining which communities are most likely to encounter displacement and require relocation requires a sophisticated assessment of a community’s ecosystem vulnerability to climate change, as well as the vulnerability of its social, economic and political structures. Currently no state or federal government agency has the mandate or funding to facilitate this process. If permanent relocation is the best long-term climate adaptation strategy which can protect populations, a human rights perspective obliges the federal government to protect every person forced from her community and to enact laws and policies to create a relocation governance framework which promotes these rights, as recognized under international human rights laws.

Already-recognized human rights principles articulated in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the 2007 U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ensure that climate adaptation strategies promote equity and justice and protect fundamental rights that ensure human dignity. Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundational international human rights document upon which international human rights law is based, it bears no force of law. Between 1948 and 1966, the UN Human Rights Commission produced two major documents: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both became international law in 1976.

The human rights principles most important for any climate-caused relocation process, include the right to relocate when climate-induced environmental change threatens the lives of community residents and erosion control and flood relief cannot provide protection; the right to life, which mandates a nation state government to protect its citizenry from climate-induced environmental threats; and the right to self-determination to empower communities during the relocation process and ensure that the relocation is community-based and community-led. In order to further this last principle, affected communities must be leaders in the relocation process. Human development goals which improve the economic and social conditions of community residents, including in the areas of education, employment, housing, and health, must also be incorporated into community relocation planning.

Collective Self-Determination
The right to self-determination is the most important human right that needs to be embedded in any relocation institutional framework. In the context of climate-induced environmental change that threatens the lives, livelihoods and habitability of communities, self-determination means that individuals, households and communities have the right to make fundamental decisions about when, how and if relocation occurs. The concept of self-determination has evolved since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, when the principle initially was interpreted to apply to the right of independence, non-interference and democracy of a nation state in relation to other nation state governments. However, more recently the concept of self-determination has included the development of self-government institutions, which have existed for millennia, in Indigenous communities.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms that Indigenous peoples possess collective rights, indispensable for their existence and well-being, including the right to collective self-determination and the collective right to the lands and natural resources they have traditionally occupied and used. While international documents articulate the concept of collective human rights of Indigenous communities, in the context of climate-forced displacement this concept can be extended to other distinct communities where people can demonstrate kinship ties, social network connections and the desire to remain together at the relocation site. The collective right to self-determination—to choose to relocate—affirms the importance of climate-affected populations’ ability to relocate as a group, if they choose. Group relocation preserves community cohesion and to avoids the break-up of social networks and kinship ties, which is one of the most pernicious negative outcomes of development-forced displacement.

To operationalize this collective right, people need the capacity to assess, document and predict the rate of environmental changes and sociological impacts and vulnerabilities caused by climate change. Community-based monitoring of environmental change and its impact on the health and well-being of community residents can be a foundational process for protecting the collective right to self-determination. Consistent monitoring of environmental changes, and the impacts of these changes on individuals, households, and the larger community, captures the dynamic nature of a community’s vulnerability and resilience. This documentation can help determine whether and when relocation needs to occur. Community-based monitoring can also identify social and environmental indicators to help assess when protection in-place no longer provides a community with long-term sustainable adaptation to climate hazards, and guide the transition from protection in-place to community relocation.

Finally, community-based social and environmental monitoring can facilitate communication between community residents and local, state, regional, and national actors to ensure that communities are leading the implementation of climate adaptation strategies, including relocation. In this way, both residents and their local governing entity and state and federal government agencies can implement a dynamic and locally-informed institutional response. This community-based process needs to form the basis for a relocation governance framework based in human rights principles. By ensuring the communities have the capacity to protect their collective rights to self-determination, they will also be able to protect the social, economic, subsistence and cultural rights critical to long-term resilience and adaptation. The ability of this community-based process to foster human rights will depend on the capacity of governance institutions to collaborate, be transparent in decision-making, and be inclusive of all sectors of society.

Coastal communities all over the world are watching the ocean swallow land, eat shorelines, and submerge entire islands. The relocation of populations is one of the most severe injustices caused by climate-induced environmental change. The permanent disappearance of land will cause an enormous loss of connection to place, culture and heritage. Livelihoods, especially those dependent on the environment, will be severed. Human rights principles must be the foundation upon which people determine whether when and if they need to find higher ground and specifically protect the collective and individual rights of people residing in these communities.

  • Robin Bronen Executive Director
    Alaska Institute for Justice