Coping with the realities of climate displacement: The Peninsular Principles

by Khaled Hassine

Dr. Khaled Hassine is an international laywer specialized in property restitution and mass claims procedures, who was part of the Peninsula Principles drafting team.

Though the linkages between climate change and displacement are complex and cannot entirely be predicted, the enduring debate about causality and path dependency seems somewhat derisive in light of the reality faced by many people around the world who are losing their homes and livelihoods as a result of climatic changes and their effects 

Climate displacement already is and will increasingly be one of the many ways in which affected populations adapt to their changed environment. Eventually, albeit belatedly, this actual fact was acknowledged in 2010 by the Cancún Adaptation Framework, which recognized migration, displacement and planned relocation as forms of adaptation to climate change.

The Peninsular Principles on Climate Displacement Within States are born out of a necessity to cope with this reality. The process was driven by people and communities claiming the protection of their rights in the wake of both large and small-scale threats from an increasingly hostile environment.

It is they themselves who felt that there was a pressing need to develop a normative, institutional and implementation framework. Displacement Solutions as an international non-governmental organization merely took on this grass root quest for guidance and solutions, and helped to facilitate and steer a process geared towards addressing the pivotal questions of climate displacement that concern people everywhere.

The Peninsular Principles are the result of a five-year long process of broad-based consultations with thousands of people in heavily affected countries and a round of public soundings on a first draft. The Principles were crafted taking into account the views expressed by governments, United Nations agencies, NGOs, civil society and affected communities.

The Principles gained momentum in August 2013 when a group of eminent international jurists, legal scholars and climate experts gathered in the Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula near the Victorian capital Melbourne (the place which also inspired the Principles’ name) under the leadership of Displacement Solutions as a drafting committee to hold a concluding round of exchanges to finalize the Principles.

In light of the many existing relevant standards, first and foremost the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, but also the Pinheiro Principles, one of the many questions raised is whether we need yet another set of Principles. The Peninsular Principles have not been crafted in a legal vacuum; they explicitly build on and contextualize the Guiding Principles and acknowledge, among others, the Pinheiro Principles, incorporating some of their provisions.

In contrast to proposals for a new legal instrument providing protection for people displaced by climate change, the Peninsular Principles constitute a restatement of the existing law tailoring it to the specific needs of climate displacement in order to address gaps and formulate policy and action guidance. The Principles draw on real life scenarios and seek to formulate a common standard providing the foundation for the articulation of the rights of those affected by climate displacement as well as to guide the action of local and national authorities in addressing the related challenges.

Moreover, in spite of the existing standards, there are protection gaps when it comes to climate displacement, both internally and across borders. Climate displacement raises a number of significant issues related to statehood, statelessness, security and human cross-border mobility. Yet the Peninsular Principles are limited to addressing the phenomenon of climate displacement within States.

Complex matters such as these can only be resolved in the framework of a multi-stakeholder, State-driven process, such as the Nansen Initiative, which, in conjunction with the Peninsular Principles’ initiative, is dedicated to addressing the cross border aspects of the climate displacement problem. Another reason for the domestic focus of the Peninsular Principles is that by now, most observers agree that the major part of climate displacement will occur internally.

IDPs are in general better protected than migrants, including under the Guiding Principles, but there are nevertheless some practical, legal and normative gaps that need to be addressed. These include the definition of forced displacement as opposed to voluntary migration, and the question of return, since their displacement may be permanent in nature.

The Guiding Principles also do not provide clear protection to those displaced as a result of slow onset disasters (i.e. the gradual deterioration of living conditions and economic opportunities in affected areas), which will encourage voluntary population movements in an initial phase, but could later ripen into forced displacement and become permanent as areas become less hospitable due to desertification or rising sea levels.

The Peninsular Principles also represent a radical shift in addressing climate displacement as they advocate for a preemptive approach in dealing with this phenomenon under the absolute condition that for those who cannot stay in or return to their homes should receive land solutions in the context of a rights-based and participatory relocation process. A preemptive approach is fundamental in relation to the identification of suitable land solutions for future relocation in order to avoid that the sites become subject to speculation, which is a frequent feature of relocation endeavors.

The Peninsula Principles are meant to support and guide all actors in the search for viable rights-based solutions for the climate displacement challenge that is becoming more pressing by the day. They are a first step in a process, which now needs to be followed by concrete action. It is hoped that human rights mechanisms, national and international NGOs as well as Governments will be willing to embrace these crucial Principles and to use them as the basis for action in support of those faced with the reality of climate change.

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