Ioane Teitiota, a national of the Republic of Kiribati, claimed that by removing him to Kiribati, New Zealand violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Teitiota claimed that the effects of climate change and sea level rise forced him to migrate from Kiribati to New Zealand. Specifically, sea level rise in Kiribati has resulted in: (a) the scarcity of habitable space, which has in turn caused violent land disputes that endanger Teitiota’s life; and (b) environmental degradation, including saltwater contamination of the freshwater supply. The Immigration and Protection Tribunal in New Zealand issued a negative decision concerning his claim for asylum. However, the Tribunal did not exclude the possibility that environmental degradation could “create pathways into the Refugee Convention or protected person jurisdiction.” The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court each denied Teitiota’s subsequent appeals concerning the same matter.
Was Teitiota’s evidence of the risks and effects of climate change in Kirabati sufficient to establish a prima facie case of a violation of the right to life under the ICCPR, rendering it admissible? Teitiota sufficiently demonstrated, for the purpose of admissibility, that due to the impact of climate change and associated sea level rise on the habitability of Kiribati and on the security situation in the islands, he faced as a result of New Zealand’s decision to remove him to Kiribati a real risk of impairment to his right to life under Article 6 of the ICCPR. Accordingly, Articles 1 and 2 of the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR did not constitute an obstacle to the admissibility of the communication.
Did New Zealand’s removal of Teitiota constitute a violation of his right to life under the ICCPR? The Committee recalled that it must assess whether there was clear arbitrariness, error, or injustice in New Zealand’s evaluation of Teitiota’s claim that he faced a real risk of a threat to his right to life when he was removed to Kiribati. In this case, Teitiota did not establish that he faced an imminent, or likely, risk of arbitrary deprivation of life upon return to Kiribati. Specifically he did not show that (a) he had been in any land dispute, or faced a real chance of being physically harmed in such a dispute in the future; (b) he would be unable to find land or accommodation (c) he would be unable to grow food or access potable water; (d) he would face life-threatening environmental conditions; (e) his situation was materially different from that of every other resident of Kiribati; or (f) the Government of Kiribati had failed to take programmatic steps to provide for the basic necessities of life. The Government of Kiribati had taken steps to address the effects of climate change, according to the 2007 National Adaptation Programme of Action submitted by Kiribati under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Can environmental degradation caused by climate change lead to a violation of the right to life? The Committee recalled that environmental degradation, climate change, and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life. While in the instant case the facts did not establish a violation of Teitiota’s right to life, both Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of New Zealand, as well as the Committee, did not exclude the possibility that environmental degradation could result in a violation of the right to life.