Nowadays: internally displaced persons

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DEVELOPING and protecting rights as part of the efforts to safeguard the environment, attain sustainable development and alleviate poverty and inequalities is a current concern in many parts of the world. This was brought about by the grand-scale and unprecedented phenomenon of environmental refugees as a consequence of natural disasters and unnatural ones like armed conflicts.

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Among basic human rights, the right to life and dignity intrinsically tied to the right to an ecologically and humanly viable environment, is lately most written about, discussed and dissected. It is a big issue vis-a-vis climate justice and the future generations of environmental refugees who cross national borders and internally displaced persons who leave their homes or places of abode and move to another place within their own country. Environmental refugees in the Philippine archipelago are commonly referred to as internally displaced persons. (In some Pacific island states most vulnerable to sea level rise, people prefer to be called climate migrants).

Be it noted that climate change itself does not directly affect human rights. Rather, global warming causes environmental change which in turn affects human rights. Neither the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change nor its Kyoto Protocol includes any provision concerning specific assistance for those who will be directly affected by the effects of climate change. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, on the other hand, applies to those persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular racial or political group. As the Refugee Convention is not applicable to climate-change-displaced-people at the moment, those persons deserve to get legal identity through the legal system of each country.

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Philippines has tremendously increased in the last few years due to conflicts and natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, storm surges, landslides, oil spills, etc. This year, it was reported that 11 million Filipinos were displaced by calamities due to, among others, typhoons (Glenda, Henry, Luis and Mario) which caused floods, landslides and monsoon rains that reached some parts of Luzon; the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck the islands of Bohol and part of Cebu; and Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013 which claimed lives, property and crops. Likewise, it was reported that the number of IDPs affected by the on-going conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Muslim secessionist groups reached 500,000. Add to that the IDPs, mostly Muslim residents of Zamboanga including Badjaos, indigenous people dependent on the sea for livelihood, who fled their communities when armed men from a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front went into Zamboanga City in an attempt to occupy the place. After a year, they remain displaced, accommodated in the city sports center in temporary makeshift shelters.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines ranks third after Myanmar and Indonesia as a country with the most number of IDPs and among the top forty (40) countries where internal displacement is considered a significant new phenomenon.

To meet the challenges posed by internally displaced persons, a bill is pending before the 16th Congress of the Philippines to protect their rights (HR Bill No. 00239). This legal initiative would not only help the country to manage unexpected displacement but also reduce overall climate change vulnerabilities.

The proposal encompasses the protection of IDPs during and after displacement as well as their resettlement, relocation and re-integration. It is about giving them access to basic necessities like shelter, food and clean water; guaranteeing their freedom of movement and family unity; providing them facilities for good health and education; as well as protecting their property and possessions.

Contemplated also are the rights to essential medicine and sanitation; the right of expectant mothers and newborns; the right of persons with disabilities; the right to family reunification; the right of protection against criminals; the right to communication including access to information and communication in a language they understand; and the right to express grievances.

In this connection, the lawmakers should look into extending assistance to workers and officers of foreign humanitarian groups, especially in the matter of their access to damaged areas, easing restrictions on entry of their relief goods, etc.

If approved by Congress and signed into law by the President, the law will be the first in Asia and serve as a model for countries facing similar issues of displacement and violation of people’s rights as the government is unable to serve the general welfare of its constituents. Most important of all, it will help promote the human rights-based approach to disaster risk reduction and management.

After his engagement with the Philippine diplomatic corps, former Ambassador Amado S. Tolentino. Jr. resumed his environmental law consultancy work with UNEP. Currently, he lectures on environmental law and writes for law journals and other publications. He is on the Advisory Board of the Asia-Pacific Center for Environmental Law (APCEL), Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.

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