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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.

Floods, a 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 change.

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 their survival.

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 public order.

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 Centre.

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 intensify.

- Third World Network Features



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