Australian Outlook

In this section

The Impact Of Climate Change On The Right To Self-Determination

30 Jun 2022
By Jasmin L’Green and Zara Bendit-Rosser
Climate Resilience Sector Project in Tonga. The Hahake Coastal Protection consists of hard and soft infrastructure interventions to protect the coastline and manage coastal erosion in selected sites on the 8 km of the Hahake (Eastern Tongatapu) coastline.
Source: Asian Development Bank / Flikr.

Self-determination is a fundamental right of people recognised under international human rights law, one that promotes freedom and autonomous choice within all aspects of life. However, climate change is posed to directly impact the right to self-determination.

Unlike most human rights which are framed in individualistic terms such as the right to life and the right to education, self-determination is a collective right vested in groups to determine their political destiny, and freely pursue their cultural, social, and economic development. The right to self-determination is well-defined in international law and can be found in: Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); and Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

Australia has signed and ratified the ICCPR and ICESCR, and has endorsed UNDRIP at a global level. However, no binding domestic legislation has been adopted to enforce these international instruments. The notion that there is a right to self-determination is universally accepted, particularly in relation to Indigenous peoples’, however, the constitution of the right to self-determination is largely contested.

Established to support the sovereignty of communities post-World War I, the right to self-determination is considered settled in its decolonial roots as it works towards enabling the cultural survival of minority groups against powerful nation states. Accordingly, the right to self-determination presents a unique challenge to the well-established international legal principle of state sovereignty as it legitimises expressions of group identity.

While climate change has traditionally been viewed as a matter of science, there is now general consensus that climate change has negative implications on the realisation of a number of human rights. In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognised self-determination as one of the human rights most affected by climate change. Climate change will inevitably displace individuals, limiting their ability to practice their culture and freely engage in economic, social, and cultural development. Although the effects of climate change on the right to self-determination concerns all groups around the world, certain groups, including Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Indigenous peoples, are particularly at risk.

SIDS are particularly vulnerable due to several factors, including small population size, geographic remoteness from international markets, and their low-lying nature exposing them to the slow onset of sea level rise. Rising sea levels will cause communities to lose buildings, estates, and agricultural lands, forcing residents to move to unfamiliar territories, causing both physical and emotional loss. This threatens their “continued existence as independent, political communities,” with their ability to access traditional social and cultural spaces restricted. These factors collectively threaten the permanent sovereignty and territorial existence of SIDS and by extension, their right to self-determination.

Indigenous groups are also acutely threatened by climate change as their identity and culture is intrinsically linked to the land. Country forms an integral part of many Indigenous cultures, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and is fundamental to the health, wellbeing, and continued existence of these communities. Forcible relocation will significantly impede on the ability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to exercise their right to self-determination.

The disproportionate effects of climate change on vulnerable groups, including SIDS and Indigenous peoples, highlights the critical role of the international community, particularly developed and high-emitting states, to engage in mitigation and adaptation strategies to protect and ensure the right of self-determination for all peoples. Protecting the right to self-determination involves an obligation on states to facilitate an environment in which groups are sovereign and have autonomy in a physical, cultural, economic, and social sense, and creating a space where these groups can actively participate in relevant decision making.

States further have the obligation to foster an environment of liberty and independence, which impacts of climate change directly restrict. Climate migration is a prime example of this, with low-lying states “predicted to be uninhabitable by mid-century” resulting in mass migration consequently restricting groups abilities to practice culture and live autonomously.

The pattern of more than two decades of emissions reductions negotiations amongst key high-emitting states has largely followed a treaty-based “logic of reciprocity,” whereby states will seek to reduce their emissions only to the extent their economic competitors are prepared to do in turn. This logic of reciprocity significantly limits the level of ambition states are prepared to commit to in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn threatens the effective realisation of the right to self-determination for all peoples.

How developed states respond to the plight of people displaced by climate change is an open question, one which international law currently says little about. For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol both consciously ignore issues pertaining to the permanent loss of sovereignty and statelessness caused by climate change-related impacts. The duty of protecting this human right must be accepted by states, especially those with high-emissions, and mitigation and adaptation strategies must be engaged in by all groups to work towards fulfilling this right.

Adaptation and mitigation policies must be adopted worldwide, with specific pressure placed on high-emitting states to take responsibility for current obligations which are being It is imperative that these high-emitting states take responsibility, rather than passing these issues down to SIDS and Indigenous peoples to rally for. Nevertheless, groups most affected, including SIDS and Indigenous peoples must be directly engaged in how they would like to address the adverse climate impacts affecting their communities. Climate change policy must be rooted in the right of self-determination, giving a human-rights based approach that privileges the status, humanity, and aspirations of the people central to the challenge of displacement and statelessness.

Jasmin L’Green is a proud Kuungkari woman in her fifth year of law at the University of Newcastle. Jasmin complete a Bachelor of Development Studies majoring Globalisation & Economic Development in 2020 with a Distinction. Jasmin’s research interests span across a range of areas in human rights law, specifically climate change and Indigenous Australians. 

Zara Bendit-Rosser is a student at the University of Newcastle, who is currently completing a Bachelor of Law and has completed a Bachelor of Development Studies majoring in Globalisation & Economic Development in 2021 with Distinction. She works part time at Catherine Henry Lawyers in the health law team and also has a special interest in human rights law.

This article is part of a series of submissions from students studying Human Rights and Climate Change-Induced Human Displacement at the University of Newcastle.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.