AU pushes the envelope on 'climate migrants'
The African Union has adopted a landmark
treaty that recognises the protection of people displaced by natural
disasters aside from conflict and violence
An African international agreement has opened the door to a debate on
the rights and protection of people displaced by natural disasters, with
a nod to migration as a result of climate change.
The Kampala Convention, a ground-breaking treaty adopted by the
African Union (AU), promises to protect and assist millions of Africans
displaced within their own countries. Significantly, the treaty
recognized natural disasters as well as conflict and generalized
violence as key factors in uprooting people.
major climatic issue in Africa
Jean Ping, chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, said
that "more and more people are likely to be displaced" as Africa
experiences more frequent droughts and floods brought about by climate
He said the inclusion of displacement by natural disasters was
informed by the global debate on the need to develop a framework for the
rights of "climate refugees" - people uprooted from their homes and
crossing international borders - because the changing climate threatened
The treaty also calls on governments to set up laws and find
solutions to prevent displacement caused by natural disasters, with
compensation for those who were displaced. Migration expert Etienne
Piguet said with the Kampala Convention the AU had "once again" tried to
push the envelope.
In 1969 the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee
Problems in Africa, adopted by the then Organization of African Unity,
had gone a step further than the 1951 UN Refugee Convention by using a
definition of "refugee" that included not only people fleeing
persecution but also those fleeing war or events seriously disturbing
Piguet described the reference to people displaced by natural
disasters as an "interesting attempt" to find "adequate answers to the
new concern about migration linked to environmental degradation".
In 2008 climate-related natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes
and floods forced 20 million people out of their homes, while 4.6
million people were internally displaced by conflicts, according to a
recent joint study by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs (OCHA) and the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring
The Representative of the UN Secretary-General (RSG) on the Human
Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in a submission to the UN
Framework Convention on Climate Change noted that people uprooted from
their homes by natural disasters enjoyed protection under the existing
human rights law and the guiding principles on internal displacement.
However, the Kampala Convention also calls on governments to "prevent
or mitigate, prohibit and eliminate root causes" of displacement, and
find "durable solutions" to them.
Moussa Idriss Ndele, President of the Pan-African Parliament, the
legislative body of the AU, said the debate in Kampala on the rights of
people displaced by natural disasters did not "quite evolve properly -
we did not address the issue of climate change" because most people
still believed conflict was the biggest trigger of displacement.
Can of worms
However, it was unclear which events could be linked to climate
change. "More and more people are being displaced by floods, which are
becoming more and more frequent and intense," said Rachel Shebesh, chair
of the African Parliamentarian Initiative for Climate Risk Reduction.
The RSG said there was a need to clarify or even develop a legal
framework to help people who moved inside or outside the country because
environmental degradation and slow-onset disasters - like
desertification, salination of soil and groundwater - made areas
uninhabitable, and if displaced persons could not return to their homes
they should be considered forcibly displaced.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected
more frequent and intense floods and droughts in Africa during the next
few decades, and the debate is not only set to continue, but to
- Third World Network Features