Around the globe, large numbers of people face a credible risk of displacement – either within their own countries or abroad – due to climate change. Island nations across the Central Pacific, South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, as well as large tracts of land from Bangladesh to Egypt, risk partial or complete submergence by the middle of this century. Shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, increasing salinity and the particular vulnerability of small islands to rising sea levels and increased severe weather events compromise their continued habitability, impacting upon agricultural viability, vital infrastructure and services, the stability of governance, and ultimately human settlement.
Whether, and how, people displaced by climate change are protected by international law is unclear. When faced with a novel challenge such as climate-induced displacement, international law might be brought to bear in different ways. To borrow from Roslyn Higgins (writing in the context of terrorism), whether one regards climate-induced displacement ‘as new international law, or as the application of a constantly developing international law to new problems – is at heart a jurisprudential question’.
On the one hand, existing international legal principles might be applied to the situation of those displaced by climate change, regardless of any special characteristics of that affected group. In general, the fundamental protections of international human rights law and international humanitarian law apply to all people, irrespective of whether one is displaced or not (putting to one side certain, more limited, rights such as political participation), and regardless of whether one is internally or externally displaced.