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The following statement was made by Refugees International's Climate Displacement Program Manager, Alice Thomas, at the OHCHR Social Forum 2010.
Distinguished Delegates and Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate on this panel and share with you the goals and work of Refugees International’s climate displacement program.
The Bacon Center on the Study of Climate Displacement was launched in honor of Refugees International’s late President, Ken Bacon, who before his death recognized the need to draw attention to both the immediate and long-term impacts of climate change on human displacement and migration. The overall goal of the program, which was launched in May of this year, is to better understand the impacts of climate change on displacement, and to advocate for better institutional and policy responses to the issue.
As many of the speakers have pointed out, the increase in the frequency and severity of adverse weather events that are systematic of climate change is having a profound impact on displacement worldwide. These events are and will continue threaten an array of human rights on an unprecedented scale.
Yesterday, Phillip Boncour mentioned in his remarks the need to move from the abstract to the concrete human rights impacts of climate change on people around the world. Today I wanted to share with you the findings of RI’s recent mission to Pakistan to provide you with an illustration of the wide-ranging and complex impacts climate change – and in particular sudden-onset natural disasters – is having on human rights, particularly of vulnerable populations.
Prior to arriving in Geneva on Sunday, my colleague and I spent two weeks in Pakistan examining the impacts of the floods on displacement. Following are some of our observations I wanted to share with you:
First, I cannot emphasize enough the scale of the disaster, which is not only the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history but also globally unprecedented in terms of its human impacts. Worse than the Asian Tsunami, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined, the floods have affected an estimated 20 million Pakistanis.
In terms of immediate displacement, an estimated 1.9 million homes have been damaged or destroyed.
I cannot stress highly enough the enormity of the burden a natural disaster of this magnitude and geographic scope places on BOTH the government of Pakistan and the humanitarian community. If natural disasters of this scale are the “new normal”, national governments and the international community are simply nowhere near prepared.
Second, the huge scale of displacement across the country presents significant challenges to ensuring the rights of affected populations to voluntary return and resettlement.
For example, many of the displaced have been residing in schools and other public buildings. The need to reopen schools and resume government functions has placed pressure on affected populations to leave these temporary shelters, and either return to homes that are destroyed or still underwater, or to displace elsewhere.
Moreover, while there is general acknowledgment that many of the affected populations were living in high-risk areas such as along river embankments and in low-lying flood plains, and therefore should not be allowed to move back to these same areas given the risk of future disasters, the timely development and implementation of resettlement programs or schemes will be challenging given the realities and urgent nature of the current situation, not to mention the desire of people to move back to their homes. Thus, ensuring that return and resettlement programs are in place that adhere to human rights principles is of utmost importance.
Third, the Pakistan floods demonstrate how natural disasters can lead to secondary emergencies that also affect human rights. In Pakistan, this is most evident in terms of the flood’s impact on agriculture and the very real threat of an impending food crisis. Farmers with whom we met not only lost their current crop, but standing water and eroded land also mean that many will not be able to plant the next crop. The floods have also seriously comprised access to safe drinking water, human health, and other rights.
Fourth, the Pakistan floods are a tragic example of the impacts of climate change on the human rights of the most vulnerable groups. The vast majority of people affected by the floods are poor. For example, many are tenant farmers who, vulnerable to begin with, have had their crops, livestock, personal belongings and livelihoods washed away. It is highly likely that many of them will be left worse off than they were before the floods. The floods thus underscore the long-called for need to address Pakistan’s feudal practices and for land reform on a broader scale.
The flood’s impact on women is also evident. Traditional and cultural values in many of the affected areas that require men and women to be segregated may make it difficult for women to access humanitarian assistance. For example, numerous NGOs with whom we met expressed concern that many women will not be able to access registration centers. At one UNHCR distribution center we visited, there was not a single woman among hundreds of male heads-of-household who were lined up to receive tents, blankets and other emergency relief items.
A significant percentage of the Afghan refugee population has been severely affected by the floods. We visited one Afghan settlement that was 90% destroyed – simply flattened. Prior to the floods, it had been home for decades to some 23,000 Afghan refugees. At present, they have not been allowed to return and rebuild, and many fear they will be involuntarily resettled elsewhere or forced to repatriate. The government is currently negotiating a solution to the problem but for now, they remain extremely vulnerable.
The floods also had a significant impact on the same populations who have been affected by conflict in northern Pakistan. Many people who were displaced by the military offensive in May 2009 and who had recently returned to rebuild their lives have now been displaced again – this time by the floods. Their plight underscores how climate change can significantly undermine security. It should be noted that Pakistan is not unique in this regard. Many of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change are also suffering from recent or ongoing conflict. Climate change threatens to exacerbate conflict and insecurity.
Finally, the floods in Pakistan are representative of the way in which climate change will increase migration. One NGO surmised that as many as 30% of poor tenant farmers in Sindh Province who lost their homes and crops will not return because there is nothing to return to. This has two implications:
First, to the extent that most of these people will migrate to cities such as Karachi, there must be greater focus on the protection needs of urban migrants whose human rights are threatened by discrimination, violence, and lack of access to basic rights such as adequate health care, education and the like.
Second is the need for national governments to make commitments to provide refuge for those who cross international borders as a result of climate change. In this respect, we are pleased to hear that UNHCR will be hosting a series of events in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugees Convention that will seek innovative approaches to protect those who are displaced across international borders by climate change.
The broad and far-reaching implications of climate change on human rights mean that national governments must do more to protect vulnerable populations. First and foremost, the United States and other developed countries must immediately take action to significantly curb their emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming – impacts that will be felt predominately in developing countries that bear little to no responsibility for the problem. In addition, national governments must do more to create mechanisms and allow space for the resolution of human rights issues. In Pakistan, civil society is under pressure both from the government and armed extremists. Yet, the Pakistani Ministry of Human Rights has shown little willingness to confront the government and the army on human rights challenges. Furthermore, the Pakistani government has been reluctant to allow international human rights monitoring – blocking the establishment of an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and declining visits from the former Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs as well as the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. More openness is needed from Pakistan to achieve greater international transparency on human rights challenges.