The climate change asylum joke

Last Friday I was listening to a local radio station when the presenter made a joke about a certain man in New Zealand who was in court appealing against refusal to grant him and his family asylum. What seemed funny to the presenter was that this man was basing his asylum application on the threat of sea rise in his home country an island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean and so he did not want to return after his visa expired.

There is this African tale about a young baboon that laughs itself silly on the sight of a burning forest forgetting it won’t have home for the next foreseeable future. Funny as it sounded to him, the presenter forgot the fact that in his own country Uganda in a place called Bududa thousands of people were driven out of their homes by landslides and others were buried in their houses by the mud. Also, floods in the western district of Kasese recently washed out homes and the infrastructure leaving hundreds stranded.

Apparently, according to Reuters the 37 years old Ioane Teitiota was denied asylum on the grounds that his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.

The international legal regime on refugees did not anticipate climate refugees but those displacements by war and bad political regimes. It’s ironic that at the time Nations were pre occupied with rebuilding from the disastrous world wars; their activities were busy causing Global warming.

It is hardly five years when my fellow country men and women in the Northern part of the country have returned back to what used to be their homes from IDPs as a result of the war of the bloodthirsty warlord Joseph Kony. Now a new regime of IDPs as a result of climate change has set in. Women with their toddlers spread the Capital city Kampala running away from hunger and prolonged droughts in their home lands of Karamoja.

A week hardly goes by without news of floods and torrential rains washing away people’s homes and whatever they own or prolonged droughts killing livestock and plantations. What is always important at that stage is whether the countries are able to manage and cope with the situation. Sometimes even the mightier are unable to deal with the problem as we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

While delivering lectures in Swiss schools, students kept asking me and my colleague why countries cannot just make laws and policies to cub global warming. The answer is simple; lack of political will. This reminds me of the fact that most of the legal and political rescue tend to come after an overwhelming disastrous situation.

Whereas IDPs as a result of climate change are increasingly becoming common, the population in the Oceania may actually have nowhere to run to in their own countries but to seek refuge in the neighboring countries incapable of being swallowed up by tsunamis or floods.

It may generally be seen as ingenious for one to seek asylum basing on climate change threats just like the presenter at the local radio station interpreted it. But the most important focus must be put on how to integrate the existing refugee laws to also cater for people displaced not only wars but also climate change. Besides, it is already clear that the “merchant of death” is no longer the likes of Victor Bout with their weapons business but the human activities that increase global warming.

By Mugisha Moses, Uganda


The “neighbour principle”; My Switzerland rush-hour experience and holding GHG Emitters accountable in negligence.

Last month, I joined the running bandwagon. I think I deserve a Swiss Bronze medal of sorts because I made my running debut on the Swiss soil besides it being a cross-country marathon. For three weeks my days started with a simple sometimes serious sprint to either the bus or train station and so was the rest of the day. The gold medal should be saved for the people of Berne, they are un disputed champions when it comes to running in train terminals.

It’s not because I don’t run, I can actually run Usain Bolt style if am being chased or when it’s threatening to rain. Am also in the know of the benefits of running; besides the obvious health related ones, I could also pass off as urbane and fashionable to a reasonable extent.

In Uganda, you really have to be very careful if you decide to run on the streets of Kampala. If you are lucky enough not to be apprehended after being mistaken to be a criminal, the whole street will run with you just in case what is chasing you may have common implications. Perhaps that’s why I developed cold feet for running.

While on the train from Berne to Zurich of course after 10 minutes or so of cooling off from the “marathon”, my eyes are glued on the window to catch another glimpse of the nuclear station near our train. After the train dashing past the nuclear station, the thoughts of the next lecture I  am about to give on sustainable development and climate change in Uganda get mixed up with the tort (negligence) lectures I received in the law school.

There is this case of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] UKHL 100 I learned in the law school also known as the “snail in the bottle “case. It forms the foundation of the Common law principle of negligence. In the case, a lady drank a ginger beer in a café whose bottle contained a dead snail thereafter fell sick and sued.  This fundamental case at that time went up to the court of last resort in the UK the House of Lords and the most important question was about the duty of care which Lord Atkins explained basing on the ” neighbour principle”.

He stated, “you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question”.

Whereas it is prudent to commend the Swiss effort towards creating “clean energy”, the Fukushima disaster should be able to awaken us. While attending the YES (Youth Encounter for Sustainability) in Naivasha Kenya, Dr. Roger Baud illustrated the possibility of efforts employed in promoting sustainability becoming counterproductive and perhaps more deadly than the problem which is initially meant to be solved. I believe Fukushima suits well in that picture.

The IPCC REPORT released recently states that humans are the dominant cause of global warming. The lawyer in me is convinced that “snail in the bottle “case could help bring the biggest emitters of GHGs to courts of law for negligence and failing the neighbor principle test in the aftermath of floods or droughts.

By Mugisha Moses Mugisha_kamera