UN Human Rights Committee Views Adopted on Teitiota Communication
Following denial of refugee status by the New Zealand court system, Ioane Teitiota filed a communication with the UN Human Rights Committee. He claimed New Zealand had violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Social and Political Rights.
In January 2020, the Committee ruled that his case was admissible because Teitiota had sufficiently substantiated his claim that sea level rise posed an imminent risk to his right to life. However, the Committee dismissed the case on the merits.
The Committee dismissed the communication on the merits, ruling that any deprivation of life must be personal, rather than rooted in the general conditions, except in the most extreme cases. The Committee therefore upheld New Zealand's determination that Teitiota had not provided evidence that he personally faced any real chance of being harmed in a land dispute, would be unable to grow food or access potable water, or otherwise faced life-threatening conditions.
The Committee did recognize that environmental degradation and climate change constitute serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life. They found that as sea level rise poses a risk of rendering Kiribati uninhabitable, there may come a time when "the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity."
The Teitiota climate refugee case was an early test for a type of case that is certain to become more common in the coming decades. The fact that the UN Human Rights Committee acknowledge that climate change, sea level rise, and environmental degradation could violate an individuals right to life is therefore significant.