Walter Kälin

Walter Kälin, ‘Conceptualising Climate-Induced Displacement’ in Jane McAdam (ed.), Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010) pp. 81-103.


Walter Kälin is a distinguished scholar, human rights expert and Professor of Constitutional and International Law at the University of Bern. He mainly worked in constitutional law and focused on human rights protection in international law. He has held numerous posts within the United Nations including Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. Climate change has emerged as one of the most serious challenges that international law has had to face. The effects of climate change pose a serious challenge also from the perspective of potential displacement of persons which current international law does not sufficiently reflect.


The text is the fifth chapter in the book Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives edited by Jane McAdam (Hart, 2010). In a relatively undeveloped field the book was heralded as a significant contribution to the highly complex debate on climate change and displacement. Kälin looks at how to build the necessary financial, operational and legal capacities to respond to those displaced by climate change. He summarises that such obligations should be seen in the wider context of states obligations regarding climate change: mitigation, addressing the effects and addressing the consequences. He cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when identifying water stress as the main effect of global warming. The potential scenarios he for see’s fall into the categories of sudden-onset disasters; slow-onset environmental degradation; the submergence of small island states; areas becoming high-risk zones which are no longer habitable and unrest seriously disturbing public order, violence or even armed conflict.

Kälin discusses the nature of movements and affected people in the event of the five scenarios and the applicable protection frameworks for dealing with them. While internally displaced persons and refugees suffering persecution already have provisions ensuring their human rights within existing international frameworks, those crossing international borders from the climate change induced scenarios Kälin presents do not. To develop a framework to address these people Kälin proposes a new approach that compares the dangerous effects of climate change to the persecution suffered by refugees. In this respect also the criteria that one’s own government is unwilling or unable to provide protection could be used to distinguish who should be admitted. Whether a person should be compelled to return should be analysed based on the permissibility, feasibility and reasonableness.

Kälin also touches upon those people who may be forced to relocate after the complete loss of their country, in the case of submerged small island states. This novel, albeit serious, scenario is the least developed when it comes to international law. Kälin poses that it is unlikely that the physical disappearance of a state will see it’s expulsion from the international community and that the real challenge in this respect will not be one of statelessness persons but how to ensure that those displaced are admitted to other countries on a permanent basis where they can retain their country of origin. Finally Kälin calls for the issues of displacement due to climate change to be part of the international negotiations addressing climate change, stressing that they are too important an issue to be ignored.


You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here: Kalin – Conceptualising Climate-Induced Displacement

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