Just transformation: climate crisis and the right to housing

Remedies for losses and damage (L&D) associated with climate change call for a just transformation that merges principles of sustainable environment and adequate housing in a human rights habitat.[1] Climate change-associated habitat L&D have disproportionately affected the most-vulnerable among us with grand-scale destruction, displacement and dispossession.

The associated challenges cross borders, invoking international-cooperation principles and extraterritorial obligations to realize the human right to adequate housing (HRAH).[2] These engage housing, land and property restitution standards[3] with the new agreement to fund L&D remedies associated with climate change.[4]

Displaced populations now exceed 100 million, with over half due to conflict,[5] and others resulting from persecution, human rights violations or public-order upheavals. Increasing numbers are climate-change victims.[6]

Africa alone hosts 44% of the world’s displaced. In 2020, weather-related events displaced over 74% of the 40.5 million newly displaced persons, over three times the number displaced by conflict.[7] Climate change may displace another 86 million Africans by 2050, and 216 million globally.[8]

Racial and ethnic minorities, migrants, ‘lower-caste’ communities, refugees and internally displaced persons are often segregated and confined to climate-vulnerable land and housing. They risk being denied emergency shelter and missing out on housing services for fear of arrest, detention and deportation.[9] Even ex gratia compensation for affected households may be woefully inadequate to cover L&D, ultimately deepening their impoverishment.[10]

Indigenous Peoples, peasants and other rural workers have led planet-cooling practices, while typically depending on lands and ecosystems exposed to climate-change impacts. They face greater risks of eviction and displacement from environment-conservation, climate-mitigation and adaptation schemes, biofuel plantations or renewable-energy projects.[11]

Occupied populations face dual risks: (1) neglect or exclusion from mitigation and adaptation efforts, and (2) exploitation of their lands and natural resources for such projects carried out at their expense. Notably, Moroccan projects and collaborating transnational corporations violate the occupied Sahrawi People’s sovereign rights to generate saleable energy from their lands.[12]

Most climate finance is currently via loans or non-grant instruments,[13] plunging already-indebted countries deeper into debt. Therefore, debt suspension or cancellation should accompany L&D response, especially after extreme climate events.[14]

We join the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing (SR) welcoming, in principle,[15] the CoP27 decision to establish a fund to remedy climate-change associated L&D.[16] This promises to institutionalize progress toward realizing the human right to adequate housing (HRAH) in that context.[17]

To ensure that the fund be relevant and align with human-centered climate action, human rights based (HRB) methodologies are still needed to: (1) identify causal human factors of consequent costs, losses and damage, where possible; (2) support accountability for resulting human rights violations, particularly HRAH; and (3) ensure remedies are sufficient, properly targeted, transparently managed and sustainable.[18] The HRB focus on victims compels all states to pursue remedies for those affected, applying the UN’s reparation framework in cases of gross violations.[19] Moreover, contemporary standards recognize the indispensability of policy coherence, aligning short-term emergency relief with longer-term and institutional-building development, within the overarching framework of preventive and remedial human rights obligations.[20]

Duty-holder failures to take timely and adequate adaptation measures often exacerbate destructive and displacing climate events, forcing marginalized groups and communities to assume the greatest risks.[21] They can constitute HRAH violations by omission. Maladaptation—i.e., without a rights-compliant, holistic, policy-coherent and long-term perspective design—can further risk adverse climate-related impacts or entrench inequalities.[22] Additionally, destructive actions by individuals, institutions or corporations may create liability for violations by commission.[23] When such violations amount to forced eviction, that gross violation[24] triggers victims’ entitlements to full reparation.[25]

The SR’s report recognizes that post-disaster reconstruction often favors elite interests, arbitrarily discriminates, and promotes privatization or land grabs, flouting building-back-better principles.[26] A high proportion of climate-change mitigation and adaptation funding already favors the private sector.[27] To wit, 2004 Asian tsunami resettlement and reconstruction have delivered lessons of ostensible relief works by private parties, including external NGOs and charities, actually having violated adequate-housing criteria[28] and other human-rights principles.[29]

So far, a state-to-state approach dominates L&D discourse.[30] However, administrative, government-driven compensation schemes can lack relevance and coherence with the affected people’s values at stake.

For relevant and effective human-centered climate action and climate-justice[31] outcomes, democratic control and civil society participation[32] are L&D implementation, management and oversight requirements. The question how L&D assistance would reach affected populations remains unanswered.[33] Accordingly, HIC-HLRN offers the following recommendations to complement the SR’s report, calling upon states to:

  • Ensure maximum of available resources through cost-effective operations, including non-market-based solutions, promoting, facilitating and assisting social production of habitat;[34]
  • Support and prioritize community-based quantification of values at stake[35];
  • Ensure all public-private partnership phases involve the concerned people’s meaningful participation (PPPP);
  • Suspend cancel sovereign debt as part of L&D relief, especially during and after extreme climate events[36];
  • Treat local and affected community data, including Indigenous traditional knowledge, as a crucial resources for assessing L&D values[37];
  • Avoid narrowly conceived remedies that actually may violate HRAH and cross-cutting substantive or process rights;
  • Operationalize policy coherence, aligning emergency assistance with development approaches, within human rights criteria[38];
  • Respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of host communities in cases of resettlement;
  • Ensure family unification throughout displacement and resettlement operations, including climate-change-related refugee processing.

Note: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines loss and damage as the impacts of climate change not avoided by mitigation and adaptation and Loss and Damage as the policy agenda to address loss and damage.

Photo: Demonstration at CoP 26 in Glasgow, calling for action to operationalize the loss-and-damage mechanism and fund. Source: Heinrich Boell Foundation, Washington DC.

[1][1] See “Human rights habitat,” definition in HIC-HLRN, HICtionary of Key Habitat Terms,online (updated January 2023), http://www.hlrn.org/hictionary.php?cat=H&strid=o2hr#.Y-AyG3ZBxyw.

[2] A/HRC/43/43, para. 76.

[3] United Nations Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons (“Pinheiro Principles”), E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/17, https://daccess-ods.un.org/tmp/5612815.02246857.html; https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Publications/pinheiro_principles.pdf, endorsed by Sub-Commission resolution 2005/21, E/CN.4/2006/2, para. 39, http://daccess-ods.un.org/access.nsf/Get?Open&DS=E/CN.4/2006/2&Lang=E; Handbook on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons: Implementing the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ (Geneva: FAO, IDMC, OCHA, OHCHR, UN-Habitat and UNHCR, March 2007), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Publications/pinheiro_principles.pdf.

[4] UNFCC, Funding arrangements for responding to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, 20 November 2022, https://unfccc.int/documents/624440.

[5] “Global displacement hits another record, capping decade-long rising trend,” UNHCR (16 June 2022), https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2022/6/62a9d2b04/unhcr-global-displacement-hits-record-capping-decade-long-rising-trend.html.

[6] UNHCR, “Climate Change and Disaster Displacement,” https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/climate-change-and-disasters.htmll; Sean McAllister, “There could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. Here’s what you need to know,” Zurich.com (13 January 2023), https://www.zurich.com/en/media/magazine/2022/there-could-be-1-2-billion-climate-refugees-by-2050-here-s-what-you-need-to-know#:~:text=And%20as%20the%20threat%20of,and%20extreme%20temperatures%20%E2%80%93%20since%202008; OHCHR, “’Intolerable tide’ of people displaced by climate change: UN expert,” 23 June 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/06/intolerable-tide-people-displaced-climate-change-un-expert.

[7] Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2021, Displacement breakdown by conflict and disaster type, https://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2021/, A/HRC/52/28, para. 11.

[8] Viviane Clement, Kanta Kumari Rigaud, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, Bryan; Susana Adamo, Jacob Schewe, Nian Sadiq, and Elham Shabahat, Groundswell Part 2 : Acting on Internal Climate Migration (Washington: World Bank, 2021), https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/36248.

[9] A/HRC/43/43, para. 28.

[10] “Use of the HLRN Eviction Impact Assessment Tool in a Post-disaster Situation: An assessment of the loss of property resulting from floods in Bainsiria Village, Bari Block, Jajpur District, Odisha” (New Delhi: HIC-HLRN, 2011), http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/Bainsiria%20Flood%20Survey_report_shivani.pdf.

[11] A/HRC/43/43, para. 29.

[12] Sahrawi Association of the USA and HIC-HLRN, “Human Rights Related to Habitat (Land, Housing, Population Transfer, Natural Resources) in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara,” 22 February 2022, https://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/WSUSA-HIC-HLRN_Morocco_UPR.pdf.

[13] Tracy Carty, Jan Kowalzig and Bertram Zagema, “Climate finance shadow report 2020: Assessing progress towards the $100 billion commitment” (Oxford UK: Oxfam International, 20 October 2020), https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621066/bp-climate-finance-shadow-report-2020-201020-en.pdf.

[14] Tess Woolfenden and Sindra Sharma Khushal, “The debt and climate crises: why climate justice must include debt justice” Heinrich Böll Foundation (October 2022), https://us.boell.org/en/2022/10/17/debt-and-climate-crises-why-climate-justice-must-include-debt-justice, cited in A/HRC/52/28, para. 62.

[15] A/HRC/43/43, para. 34.

[16] UNFCC, op. cit.

[17] Ibid.

[18] HLRN, “How to consider climate change-related cases in the VDB,” 7 September 2022, http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/Climate%20change%20methodology%20challenge_final.pdf; Anil Markandya and Mikel González-Eguino, “Integrated assessment for identifying climate finance needs for L&D: a critical review,” in Reinhard Mechler, Laurens M. Bouwer, Thomas Schinko, Swenja Surminski, JoAnne Linnerooth-Bayer, eds., L&D from Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature Switzerland, A.G., 2018), https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/978-3-319-72026-5.pdf?pdf=button.

[19] UN General Assembly, “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law,” A/RES/60/147, 21 March 2006, at: http://www.un.org/Docs/asp/ws.asp?m=A/RES/60/147.

[20] See, for example, Committee on World Food Security (CFS), Framework for Action for Food Security and Nutrition in Protracted Crises, CFS 2015/42/4, 15 October 2015, paras. 15–16, https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/cfs/Docs1415/FFA/CFS_FFA_Final_Draft_Ver2_EN.pdf.

[21] In Pursuit of Climate Justice: Housing and Land Rights Violations in the Context of Environmental Hazards and Climate Change (Cairo: HIC-HLRN, 2022), http://www.hlrn.org/activitydetails.php?title=New:-In-Pursuit-of-Climate-Change&id=p21qbA==#.Y9_5AHZBxyw.

[22] HIC-HLRN, In Pursuit of Climate Justice, op. cit.; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, “Summary for policymakers,” para. C.4; A/HRC/52/28, para. 22.

[23] HIC-HLRN, In Pursuit of Climate Justice, op. cit.

[24] Commission on Human Rights (CHR) affirmed “that the practice of forced evictions constitutes a gross violation of human rights, in particular the right to adequate housing.” CHR, “forced eviction,” resolution 1993/77, 10 March 1993, para. 1, http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/ECN4199377%20en.pdf; and CHR reaffirmed “that the practice of forced eviction that is contrary to laws that are in conformity with international human rights standards constitutes a gross violation of a broad range of human rights, in particular the right to adequate housing.” CHR, “Prohibition of forced evictions,” resolution 2004/28, 16 April 2004, para. 1, http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/E-CN_4-RES-2004-28.pdf.

[25] “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law,” A/RES/60/147, 21 March 2006, http://www.un.org/Docs/asp/ws.asp?m=A/RES/60/147.

[26] A/HRC/43/43, para. 21.

[27] Joseph Schechla, Going Green: Monitoring the Green Transition in the Arab Region (Beirut: Arab NGO Network for Development, October 2021), https://www.annd.org/uploads/publications/Going_Green_-_Monitoring_the_Green_Transition_in_the_Arab_Region_EN.pdf.

[28] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 4: “the right to housing,” E/1992/23, 13 December 1991, http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/GC4.pdf;

[29] Battered Islands: Report of a Fact-finding Mission to Tsunami-affected Areas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Fact-finding Report No. 9 (New Delhi: HIC-HLRN, 2016), https://www.hlrn.org.in/documents/Battered_Islands.pdf.

[30] “CoP27: Climate Justice amid Loss and Damage,” Land Times/أحوال الأرض, issue 27, http://landtimes.landpedia.org/newsdes.php?id=qW9t&catid=pQ==&edition=pG8=.

[31] Adriana Allen, “Climate Justice IS a Human Right,” HIC statement on World Habitat Day 2021, 4 October 2021, https://www.hic-net.org/urban-october-2021/#Statement-.

[32] Participation as defined in Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4 (July 1969), pp. 216–24, https://organizingengagement.org/models/ladder-of-citizen-participation/?print=pdf.

[33] A/HRC/43/43, para. 61.

[34] New Urban Agenda, A/RES/71/256, January 2017, paras. 31 and 46, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N16/466/55/PDF/N1646655.pdf?OpenElement.

[35] “HLRN’s Violation Impact Assessment,” HIC-HLRN website, http://www.hlrn.org/spagenew.php?id=qnE=#.Y9_6XHZBxyw.

[36] Tess Woolfenden and Sindra Sharma Khushal, “The debt and climate crises: why climate justice must include debt justice” Heinrich Böll Foundation (October 2022), https://us.boell.org/en/2022/10/17/debt-and-climate-crises-why-climate-justice-must-include-debt-justice, cited in A/HRC/52/28, para. 62.

[37] “HLRN’s Violation Impact Assessment,” op. cit.

[38] CFS, op. cit.