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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 288
September 22, 2012

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Displacement and human rights

Mostafa Mahmud Naser

Scientists and expert bodies such as IPCC confirm that the environmental degradations due to the effects of climate change are likely to trigger mass human displacement in Bangladesh. Consequently, the involuntary human movement implicates a bundle of universally recognised human rights and humanitarian norms and standards in a myriad of ways. Both civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights are likely to be implicated by such displacement. Under international human rights law, generally a state bears human rights obligations towards all persons within its jurisdiction. Since most climate induced displacement in Bangladesh is likely to be internal within its territory, in line with the obligation under human rights treaties, the Government incurs obligation to take measures to protect fundamental human rights of the people displaced due to the impacts of climate change. The existing body of international human rights norms, principles and jurisprudence such as the UN Guiding Principles, IASC Operational Guidelines and Hyogo Framework can provide guidelines for framing such legal framework for protection of human rights of climate induced displaced persons.

Although Bangladesh with its limited resources is trying hard to cater the challenges posed by climate change on human life and livelihood, the scarcity of resources including human, financial, and technological constraint the efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The protective measures, such as building large infrastructure like embankments and rehabilitation centres for disaster affected people, sustainable adaptation programmes, innovative agriculture to ensure food security, large scale relocation and resettlement for those who are likely to lose land, home, and livelihood due to sea level rise and others environmental degradations, are yet to be effectively implemented. Given the size and range of impacts, and the large number of people affected, it is widely recognised that Bangladesh requires substantial amount of financial resources for managing and protection of people who are already displaced or climate victims likely to be displaced in coming decades.

The international community invokes some extraterritorial human rights obligations under international human rights law, especially when a state is unwilling or unable to assume the responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens. One of the purposes of the UN is to “achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. A number of human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), encourage such an international cooperation according to which states parties should support the governments, local communities and national agencies which are not in a position to ensure basic rights for their populations. Article 2(1) of ICESCR refers to an obligation on states to utilize available international assistance towards the fulfillment of the human rights of all people around the world. The Paragraph 14(f) of the UNFCCC Cancun Adaptation Framework also invites all states parties to take “measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at national, regional, and international levels”.

In this context, it may also be appropriate to explore the potential of emerging concept of 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P) to address the situation of climate induced displacement change to recognize a responsibility of the international community to take appropriate and effective measures to protect those displaced by climate change (and indeed those affected by climate change but not displaced by it); and to sustainably rebuild communities displaced by climate change, by providing permanent and durable solutions. The R2P framework is in itself an innovative approach to address an apparent operational protection gap in international law and has been developed to reaffirm the United Nations high moral authority for the universal protection of human rights. The emerging doctrine of the R2P, which emphasizes that while the primary responsibility for the protection of a State's people lies with the State itself, the sovereign principle of non-intervention must yield to an international responsibility to protect where a population is suffering serious harm (whether due to internal war, insurgency, repression, or state failure) and the state is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it.

Although the R2P framework is not a legally binding norm, it may have potential to conceptualize the problem and can be applied only when the impacts of climate change degrade the situation in a particular country in such a way that the state fails to prevent harm to its population. In Bangladesh scenario, in many situations concerning climate change displacement, the government is simply unable to provide effective and extensive assistance to its citizens since the capacity of the national government is severely limited. In such situation, however, inaction by the international community leaving mass people who were compelled to leave their home due to adverse impacts of climate change and in destitute of any government support to suffer would indeed defy the pledge of universal human rights enunciated in UN Charter.

Thus, it is a human rights obligation for international community to extend international cooperation and transfer financial and technological resources to least developed countries including Bangladesh for human rights protection of people affected by climate change. With such assistance possibly Bangladesh will be able to offer durable solutions to the displacement caused by climate change.

The author is Assistant Professor at Department of Law, University of Chittagong.


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