An Opportunity for Pre-Emption: Exploring the Legal Vacuum Occupied by those Internally Displaced by Slow-Onset Climate Change

Author:James Patrick Sexton
Position:LL.B (Honours) Candidate, University of Glasgow
Pages:87-107
© 2020 James Patrick Sexton and Dublin University Law Society
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR PRE-EMPTION: EXPLORING
THE LEGAL VACUUM OCCUPIED BY THOSE
INTERNALLY DISPLACED BY SLOW-ONSET CLIMATE
CHANGE
JAMES PATRICK SEXTON*
Introduction
The catastrophic effects of climate change are often linked with large-
scale, un-anticipated events which devastate large areas almost overnight
and force thousands to leave their homes.
1
These events rightly stimulate
a rapid response by the international community and non-governmental
organisations (‘NGOs’) to fulfil ensuing humanitarian requirements.
However, slow-onset climate change is much harder to conceptualise and,
consequently, plan for. Due to its longevity and perceived vagueness,
2
attitudes of inevitability and ‘apocalypse fatigue’ often plague efforts to
combat the sources of climate change and protect those most acutely
affected by it.
3
While large-scale ‘fast-onset’ climate disasters are utterly
devastating, they mostly occur in restricted areas where aid can be
targeted relatively efficiently by the global community. Rising sea-levels,
conversely, could submerge land currently home to over five hundred
million people if current carbon emissions are not significantly curbed.
4
*LL.B (Honours) Candidate, University of Glasgow. The author would like to thank
Assistant Professor Miriam Cullen for her help conceptualizing the article, Trinia Lucia
Højmark-Jensen for futher inspiration, the Trinity College Law Review, and Hannah
Abukhadir for their invaluable guidance and perseverance during drafting.
1
Landry Nintereste, ‘Cyclone Idai shows the deadly reality of climate change in Africa’, The
Guardian: Online (21 March 2019)
dai-climate-change-
africa-fossil-fuels> accessed 2 April 2019.
2
Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change, (2nd edn, Polity Press 2009) 2.
3
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, ‘Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on
Climate Change’ (2009) Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
accessed 15 April 2019.
4
Scott Kulp, Anders Levermann and Benjamin H Strauss, ‘Mapping Choices: Carbon,
Climate, and Rising Seas, Our Global Legacy’ (2015) Climate Central Research Report 6
Trinity College Law Review [Vol 23
88
Against this backdrop, the number of those forced to leave their homes
will inevitably increase
A. Internal Displacement
While those who flee across international borders have historically
attracted consistent international attention, those who remain within their
own country are often neglected.
5
A person that is internally displaced’
(‘IDP’) is someone that has been forced to leave their home or place of
habitual residence for various reasons including natural or man-made
disasters.
6
They cannot be considered for the relatively strict confines of
refugee status, as they remain within the borders of their state.
7
Likewise,
IDPs do not occupy group-specific status under international law, such as
that enjoyed by stateless persons.
8
An individual that is internally
displaced does not require a reason for their displacement, unlike a
refugee, and therefore, their categorisation is less clear.
9
Despite garnering
less attention, IDPs are frequently higher in number than other groups of
forced migrants.
10
As internal displacement is largely considered a domestic issue, no
binding international instrument exists to provide redress and protection.
Recognising the severity of the difficulties faced by IDPs, The Guiding
Principles on Internal Displacement (‘Guiding Principles’) were created in
1998. This soft-law instrument drew upon international humanitarian law
(‘IHL’), international human rights law (‘IHRL’), and analogous refugee
law to ‘address the specific needs of internally displaced persons
Mapping-Choices-Report.pdf>
accessed 15 April 2019.
5
Jane McAdam, ‘The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: 20 Years On’ (2018)
30(2) International Journal of Refugee Law 187.
6
UNHCR, Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons, (22 July 1998) ADM 1.1, PRL
12.1 PR00/98/109, [2]. .
7
UNGA, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (adopted 28 July 1951, entered into
force 22 April 1954) 189 UNTS 137 Art 1(a)(2); Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,
(adopted 31 January 1967, entered into force 4 October 1967) 606 UNTS 267.
8
UNGA, Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (adopted 28 September 1954,
entered into force 6 June 1960) 360 UNTS 117 Art 1.
9
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Art 1(a)(2); Protocol Relating to the Status of
Refugees, (adopted 31 January 1967, entered into force 4 October 1967) 606 UNTS 267.
10
UNHCR, Mid-Year Trends 2018, (2019) 3
year-trends-
2018.html>accessed 18 April 2019.

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