Planning for the Worst

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

The Normative Significance of Fiji’s Planned Relocation Guidelines for the Protection and Rights of Climate IDPs in the Pacific

By Liam Moore

The Vunidogoloa Climate Change Relocation Project opened in 2014. Image courtesy of the Fiji Government Online Portal.

The Fijian Government’s recently released Planned Relocation Guidelines, the first of their kind, offer a blueprint for Pacific nations to use domestic legislation and policy to increase protection for those at risk of climate-related displacement. Fiji’s acknowledgement of key normative principles relating to the protection of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) shows that domestic approaches can utilise existing soft law around IDPs to overcome gaps within existing frameworks of protection.

Fiji launched its Planned Relocation Guidelines (PRGs) at the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2018. These guidelines represent one of the first attempts to develop national-level policy on climate-related displacement and relocation. Domestically, the guidelines were necessary as Fiji has already been forced to relocate three communities, and government reports identify another 43 coastal communities in need of imminent relocation (Republic of Fiji 2019). The policy, however, has broader implications insofar as it lays the foundations for the development of an international protection regime around climate displacement. It also provides a valuable blueprint for other states to follow as they develop their own policies on climate-related displacement and relocations. I explore the policy’s implications by first assessing the existing protection framework for climate-induced IDPs, before showing how the PRGs begin to bridge the protection gap within this framework. Finally, I consider the normative implications this has for the protection of those at risk of climate-related displacement in the Pacific.

Protection framework for climate-induced IDPs

IDPs exist within a formal protection gap as their rights and protections are not specifically outlined under international legal instruments (Ferris 2011:31). The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (hereafter, Guiding Principles), however, while not legally binding, acknowledge the nexus between man-made and natural hazards and forced displacement, thereby providing the most relevant standard of rights and protections for disaster and climate-induced IDPs. For IDPs more broadly, the Guiding Principles introduce three norms which form the basis of the IDP protection regime: the first defines who can be considered an IDP, including those who flee because of violence, conflict, human rights violations, or man-made and natural hazards, and who have not crossed an international border; the second establishes that IDPs are entitled to the same legal protections as other citizens within their countries; and the third asserts the need for assistance to be provided to IDPs, principally from the state, but also from the international community (Orchard 2018:6-7). The protections set out for IDPs in the Guiding Principles are strengthened by their solid grounding in established international law, including human rights, humanitarian, refugee, environmental, and customary law (Kälin 2008).

The Guiding Principles recognise the same level of entitlements, rights, and protections to those displaced by disasters as other displaced persons. Bradley and Cohen (2010), however, argue that those affected by the types of slow-onset disasters commonly associated with climate change fall outside the Guiding Principles’ definition of rights-holding IDPs. This is due to a lack of clarity over the point at which movement is considered forced; an especially difficult assessment in the context of slow-onset disasters and climate change-related migration. Unless movement is considered forced, individuals are not entitled to the rights and protections of IDPs. I argue that, despite this limitation, Fijian policymakers and communities, through the PRGs, have been able to stretch, interpret, and co-opt these principles to address the specific challenges they face and close the protection gap for those at risk of climate-related displacement (Betts 2013:190–191). By implementing protection norms in the context of climate-related relocations, Fiji has made a potentially significant contribution to the development of a normative protection regime around climate-IDPs.

Fiji’s Planned Relocation Guidelines

Prior to publishing the PRGs, Fiji engaged in three planned community relocation projects, two of which have now been completed. In Vunidogoloa, 150 people living in 30 households were relocated two kilometres inland because of recurrent flooding (McNamara and des Combes 2015:316–317; Tronquet 2015:122). In the wake of Cyclone Evan in 2012 the community of Denimanu was partially relocated, with 19 houses constructed 250 meters inland to house around half of the 170 community members (Martin et al. 2018:4, 10). The relocation of Narikoso is still in progress. Out of a community of around one hundred people, the seven most at-risk households were scheduled to move to a new site, 150 meters inland, in November 2018. However, there has been significant delays, in part due to engineering issues with the new site and a lack of funding. While there are plans for reuniting the community with a full relocation in the future, no timeline for this has been established (Kürschner 2017; Talei 2018; Tronquet 2015:139). Officials have noted that these relocations will be used as ‘the benchmark for future village or community relocations…[and] as case studies in the development of the Relocation Guidelines’ (Cava 2015). While Narikoso’s relocation is ongoing, the sentiment among those who have moved in the first two cases is that the process has been largely successful (McNamara and des Combes 2015:318; Nunn 2018).

The content of the PRGs show the Fijian Government is developing and implementing normative protections for climate-IDPs. In particular, the document notes the importance of principles contained within the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and multiple human rights conventions. While the published PRGs do not directly reference the Guiding Principles, they were mentioned as a key guiding force in a draft of the guidelines (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation 2015:4). The influence of these key international agreements, principles, and declarations is further emphasised by the government’s stated commitment to observing ‘all international norms and standards available’ regarding relocations (Ministry of Economy 2018:5).

The remainder of this section briefly outlines the five approaches to planned relocations set out in the PRGs, which can be grouped within two categories, namely community-focused principles and forward-looking principles.

Community-focused principles include the PRGs’ human-centric, livelihood-based, and human rights-centred approaches. These seek to avoid the problems created by top-down policy development by ensuring that bottom-up perspectives on relocation are prioritised and the rights of communities upheld. The PRGs affirm that the government will pursue a broad policy of migration as adaptation to ensure people who move are not negatively affected in terms of their physical security or their livelihoods. Within this approach, relocation is seen as an option of last resort; the decision to relocate can only be made with the cooperation and full, free, and informed consent of at-risk communities (Ministry of Economy 2018:8-9). Importantly, these approaches exemplify the institutionalisation of normative principles, drawn from existing international law, standards, and policies, which emphasise the importance of voluntariness during relocation. The guidelines also allow individual relocation projects to be tailored to consider the specific needs and interests of the communities involved, to ensure their voices are heard and their rights are protected.

Perhaps the most significant way in which the PRGs fill the protection gap for those facing climate-related displacement from slow-onset hazards is through the development of a pre-emptive approach and forward-looking principles. A key protection gap for those facing slow-onset disasters, as touched on by Bradley and Cohen (2010) and others, is the point at which these individuals can claim the protections and rights associated with displacement (Kälin 2001; McAdam 2011; McAdam and Ferris 2015). Once migration occurs, the line between migration for economic reasons and forced displacement due to climate-related hazards often becomes blurred. However, borrowing from analogous concepts in development displacement literature, environmental studies, and refugee law, the PRGs recognise that those at risk of being affected by disasters and environmental change can also be protected by these principles and norms (Cernea 2003; Ferris 2011:26; Wisner et al. 2004:23). In these circumstances, climate change presents an opportunity to intervene and act before displacement occurs (McAdam 2011:4–5).

The roles of stakeholders during the relocation process are only briefly outlined in the guidelines. Standard operating procedures are meant to follow with prescriptive detail on the relocation process, however as of yet, no timeline has been specified for their development or publication. At a normative level, this suggests the implementation of these norms is in the early stages of an iterative process, where participants may, to a certain extent, exercise their agency to shape what happens on the ground and thereby, in turn, shape the nature of the norm. This can be seen in practice, for example, in the relocation of Narikoso. In this case, villagers pushed back on initial plans to permanently separate the community with a partial relocation. As a result, a two-stage relocation plan was approved, one that will see the community remain together in the long-term (Kürschner 2017). Subsequently, the PRGs defined planned relocations as the movement of whole communities, not just individuals or households (Ministry of Economy 2018:7). This example of bottom-up action influencing policy shows how important it is that the community-focused principles of the PRGs are observed and space is made for the voices of residents to be heard and their views incorporated into the ongoing development of normative protections for at-risk communities. Both sets of principles are necessary for the effective implementation of relocations; if community-focused principles are not upheld, then the forward-looking aspects will also be ineffective.

Conclusion: the normative significance of the PRGs

Like the Guiding Principles, the PRGs do not set out explicit instructions for the process of relocation, nor do they enshrine the rights of affected communities or the obligations of government agencies in Fijian law. However, as Orchard (2010) has argued, soft law can play an important role in advancing norms and standards in areas where protection gaps exist. This is because soft law can have a broader scope than hard law, allowing it to work in areas where states are reluctant to create binding legal instruments. Soft law can also provide a ready-made set of standards to be co-opted for domestic purposes.

In the Fijian case, norms around IDP protection were stretched to include communities who were at risk of being displaced by climate-related hazards like sea-level rise, storm surges, and recurrent inundations. By developing the PRGs as guidelines rather than binding legal obligations, Fiji was able to develop an ambitious policy and provide a wide scope of protections around relocations. This allowed policymakers to act as norm entrepreneurs, stretching established protection principles to bridge the protection gap for climate-induced IDPs.

The reality of climate change in the Pacific means Fiji has been forced to confront the challenges of protecting communities at-risk of climate-related displacement. Clearly, the principles of the developing IDP protection regime, particularly those within the Guiding Principles, have shaped the development of the PRGs. This in itself is important, as it displays the growing legitimacy and influence of the largely informal IDP protection regime (Orchard 2019:7-9). However, more significantly for the protection of climate-IDPs, by stretching and co-opting established norms to address locally specific issues facing climate-vulnerable communities, these guidelines may provide the foundation for other states to similarly re-interpret and stretch protection norms within their own approaches to climate-related displacement. While the development of protection norms around climate-related displacement is only in its infancy, the PRGs represent an important development for the protection of climate-vulnerable communities in the Pacific.

Liam Moore is a PhD student at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Interested in the intersection of forced migration and climate change, Liam is currently researching how international norms shape and influence protection for communities at risk of climate-related displacement and relocation in the Pacific.


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