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Climate Injustice in the Pakistan Floods and the Role of International Law

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

Sohaima Khilji (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2025) is a contributor. Her interests include human rights, international law, and tech law. Sohaima graduated from Brandeis University with a double major in History and International Studies. Before law school, Sohaima worked as a Corps member for CityYear Los Angeles and JusticeCorps Los Angeles. She is a native Urdu speaker.

Aerial view of damage caused by the Pakistan Floods. Photo by Pakistan Disaster Relief.


The worst floods in Pakistan's recent history began on June 14, 2022, and the country is still facing severe long-term consequences. Entire villages were washed away, 1700 people died, and about 12,867 individuals were injured. These torrents have displaced 33 million people, about 10 million of whom are children who require nutrition and health services. These deluges are a direct product of worsening climate change. Pakistan is home to 7200 glaciers and record heat waves that result in torrential downpours along the Indus River. Melting mountain ice sheets, paired with a heavier monsoon season, have contributed to a previously unseen intensity of flooding in Pakistan. The international community's slow response in addressing the multitude of issues that Pakistan has faced in the aftermath of these catastrophes raises the question of whether the devastating impacts of global warming will change international law to more effectively address natural disasters.


Currently, the Geneva Convention does not apply to natural disasters, as its scope is limited to armed conflicts. The emerging field of International disaster response law (IDRL) aims to fill this gap. A key player in this work is the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies (IFRC). IFRC has created a document that provides “guidelines for the domestic facilitation and regulation of international disaster relief and initial recovery assistance,” which were adopted in November 2007 by the countries that signed on to the Geneva Convention. However, they are not legally binding and simply function as "recommendations." They call for:

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shabaz Sharif, echoed this sentiment when he said that he would seek "climate justice" from the international community. Some commentators, including Sharif, have noted that the devastation caused by the flooding in Pakistan is disproportionately the product of pollution by larger, richer countries. Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This idea of rectifying "climate injustice" implies an international responsibility to aid in the aftermath of climate change-fueled natural disasters such as the Pakistan Floods. Critics say that international aid is not enough to rectify the situation; instead, the international community should also consider climate reparations from the global North. The idea of internationally shared responsibility for climate change-fueled natural disasters begs the question of whether there will be a significant change in international law regarding natural disaster response.


The 30 million displaced individuals from the Pakistan Floods further the question of global responsibility in assisting environmental migrants. Currently, environmental migrants are not covered under the current definition of "refugee" by UN convention. The UN defines a refugee as "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." Since environmental migrants do not fit under this narrow definition, they are not entitled to the same legal protection as refugees. The current interpretation does not address people who are internally displaced or individuals displaced due to climate-related issues. Thus, there is not a straightforward legal solution to environmental migrants' rights as there is for refugees. Refugees are allowed to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. However, Pakistan's 30 million displaced individuals are not entitled to those kinds of rights under international law since they are both internally displaced and displaced due to climate-related issues. The lack of consensus on what an environmental migrant is and what liberties they enjoy contributed to the fragmented global response in Pakistan.


The gap in international law addressing responses to natural disasters plays a role in the fragmented international response to Pakistan’s devastating floods. These catastrophes bring up a series of questions that could dramatically alter international law. Specifically, with the increase in catastrophes fueled by climate change, the international community must address the injustice faced by nations that have not contributed to global warming but still endure its worst effects. However, because the Geneva Convention does not apply to natural disasters and UN precedent does not address "environmental migrants" in its definition of refugees, it is no surprise that the international response to disasters like the Pakistan Floods is fragmented and slow.

This unfairness raises a critical question: should countries that contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions be responsible for taking in refugees from future natural disasters? The international community must answer now.

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