Tribes Claim U.S. Government Violates Human Rights by Failing to Address Climate-Forced Displacement

This January, five U.S. tribes in Alaska and Louisiana submitted a complaint to multiple U.N. special rapporteurs, claiming that the U.S. government is violating its international human rights obligations by failing to address climate change impacts that result in forced displacement. The complaint is the second climate displacement-related complaint to be filed this year through the U.N. system, and the first to specifically address internal displacement as a result of climate-related impacts.

island of kivalina with houses on it

The island of Kivalina, Alaska. Rising seas and eroding coastlines are forcing the indigenous community that lives here to relocate. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Framing climate displacement as a human rights issue, the complaint joins a growing number of legal challenges that use international human rights law to try to hold governments accountable for climate change. Sixteen children from 12 countries filed a petition with the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child this past September, for example, alleging that their home governments violated children’s rights by failing to address climate change. Tribal leaders similarly claim that climate change compromises their human rights—including rights to life, health, housing, water, sanitation, and a healthy environment—and point to various impacts as evidence, such as their lost ability to trap, fish, and farm; increased flooding and saltwater intrusion; and exceedingly high rates of coastal erosion in Louisiana.

In addition to calling attention to the human rights stakes of climate displacement, the complaint pushes the envelope simply by using the term “displacement.” Recent international processes have skirted around the issue of whether people who leave home because of climate-related disasters are forced to do so, or do so by choice. The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, for example, refers to migrants “compelled to leave their countries of origin” because of disaster, but never uses the term displacement. Framing the issue as one of forced displacement may encourage the development of more robust international legal obligations, similar to the ones owed to refugees.

The legal options for climate migrants are few, and the tribes claim that the domestic legal remedies available in this case are even fewer. The Native Village of Kivalina, for example, filed a lawsuit in 2008 in federal district court, seeking monetary damages from the energy industry for loss of habitable territory due to climate change impacts. The Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal, holding that the Clean Air Act displaced federal common law claims, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2013 (see a case summary here). Questions of federalism continue to incapacitate U.S. climate cases, leaving the U.N. as a beacon of hope, albeit a very faint one.

The Alaska and Louisiana Tribes call on the U.N. special rapporteurs to pressure the U.S. to recognize climate-forced displacement as a human rights crisis, and take actions to address displacement; including by recognizing the self-determination and inherent sovereignty of all of the tribes, funding the tribal-led relocation processes for the native village of Kivalina and Isle de Jean Charles, and granting federal recognition to the named tribal nations in Louisiana so they can access federal resources for adaptation and disaster response. The complaint also asks the special rapporteurs to recommend that the federal and Alaska and Louisiana state governments set up a relocation institutional framework that can guarantee protection of the right to culture, health, safe-drinking water and adequate housing.

The Alaska Institute for Justice filed the complaint on behalf of Point-au-Chien Indian Tribe, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Citimacha-Cochtow Tribe, the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe of the Grand Bayou Indian Village, and the Native Village of Kivalina, citing the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Pinheiro Principles on Housing and Property Restitution, Peninsula Principles, UN Charter, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other rights-based instruments.

Climate change impacts affect coastal communities across the U.S.; experts forecast that climate change will displace approximately 13 million coastal residents in the U.S. by the end of this century. A recent PLOS One paper posits that the majority of these U.S. climate migrants will relocate to inland areas next to the coast, as well as urban areas in the southeast. U.S. residents from relatively unaffected areas who would normally move to the coast will also relocate to larger urban centers instead, according to the paper. Los Angeles’ surrounding counties, for example, might receive tens of thousands of migrants who would have opted for a coastal destination if not for flooding. Thus some of the measures that tribal communities seek, especially an institutional framework for relocation, would benefit coastal communities across the U.S.

This story was originally published by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

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