2022 Class action Climate activists and human rights defenders Domestic court Emissions reductions/mitigation Indigenous peoples rights New Zealand Right to life Self-determination

Smith v. Attorney-General


In March 2022, a prominent Māori landowner and advocate for tribal climate concerns took a significant step by bringing a case before the High Court of New Zealand. The central argument of the case was that the government had violated fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life and minority rights, due to its inadequate response to climate change. The plaintiff’s core contention was that successive governments had consistently failed to address the severe consequences of climate change, with a particular emphasis on its disproportionate impact on the Māori community.

Initially, the case centred on a single cause of action, which involved the government’s breach of duty to take all necessary steps to reduce New Zealand emissions and actively protect the plaintiff and his descendants from the adverse effects of climate change. Later, following a court order issued by Justice Johnston in May 2020, the plaintiff expanded the case to include two additional distinct causes of action. These additional claims were based on alleged violations of the rights to life and the rights of minorities as outlined in sections 8 and 20 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the government’s failure to act in accordance with its obligations as stipulated in the Treaty of Waitangi (one of New Zealand’s founding documents, agreed in 1840 between the British Crown and Māori leaders). The Court eventually dismissed all three claims.


The plaintiff’s claim was multi-faceted, asserting that the government’s actions, or lack thereof, constituted violations of human rights, particularly the right to life and minority rights, with a focus on the Māori population. The claim included allegations concerning the breach of duty, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the Treaty of Waitangi.


On July 15, 2022, the Court rendered a decision in favour of the government, dismissing all three claims presented by the plaintiff. The Court found the plaintiff’s common law duty of care claim untenable, reasoning that it failed to define specific legal obligations and exceeded the boundaries of incremental development of new duties. Moreover, the Court asserted that the creation of an effective remedy, such as court-monitored monitoring, would necessitate an institutional expertise, democratic participation, and accountability beyond the capabilities of the court process alone.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s assertion regarding the right to life, deeming it untenable due to the absence of substantial evidence indicating a ‘real and identifiable’ threat to individuals or groups. Instead, the Court viewed climate change as a general threat impacting all New Zealanders due to its broad-reaching consequences. The Court further noted that the plaintiff’s argument concerning the breach of minority rights lacked merit since the relevant regulations primarily prohibited the Crown from infringing upon minority rights rather than imposing positive duties.

Additionally, the Court clarified that claims based on the Treaty and fiduciary obligations were not valid, as they hinged on the same general duty initially put forth in the first cause of action, which the Court had already rejected as unsound. The Court emphasized that the plaintiff’s contention that this duty was owed exclusively to the Māori population, rather than the wider public, further undermined its validity.


The case documents are accessible via Climate Case Chart: Click here.

Status of the case:


Suggested citation:

Michael John Smith v. The Attorney-General, [2022] NZHC 1693 (15 July 2022), The High Court of New Zealand.

Last updated:

20 October 2023.

2019 Climate-induced displacement Human Rights Committee New Zealand Non-refoulement Prohibition of torture Right to life

Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand


The applicant submitted that New Zealand had violated his right to life under the ICCPR by removing him to Kiribati, an island state where, he submitted, the situation was becoming increasingly unstable and precarious due to sea level rise caused by global warming. The HRC accepted the claim that sea level rise and climate change-related harms can trigger non-refoulement obligations, but found that there is still time to take measures to protect the population of Kiribati.


Concerning the imminence of the risk faced, the Committee noted that the author was not alleging a hypothetical future harm, but a real predicament caused by a lack of potable water and employment possibilities, and a threat of serious violence caused by land disputes. The author had sufficiently demonstrated, for the purpose of admissibility, the existence of a real risk of harm to his right to life, given the impact of climate change and associated sea level rise on the habitability of Kiribati and on the security situation on the islands.


The HRC found that environmental degradation can compromise the effective enjoyment of the right to life, and if severe it can violate that right. The Committee accepted the author’s claim that sea level rise is likely to render Kiribati uninhabitable. Without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving States may expose individuals to a violation of articles 6 or 7 ICCPR, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending States. However, it noted that the time frame of 10 to 15 years, as suggested by the author, could allow for intervening acts by Kiribati, with the assistance of the international community, to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population.

Remedies ordered:


Separate opinions:


Implementation measures taken:



24 October 2019

Status of case:


Suggested case citation:

Human Rights Committee, Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand, No. 2728/2016, Communication of 24 October 2019.

Full text:

For the full-text of the decision in the case, click here.

Further reading:

Adaena Sinclair-Blakemore, ‘Teitiota v New Zealand: A Step Forward in the Protection of Climate Refugees under International Human Rights Law?’ Oxford Human Rights Hub, 28th January 2020, available here.


climate refugees, affectedness, non-refoulement

2014 Children and young people Children's rights/best interests Climate-induced displacement Domestic court New Zealand Sea-level rise

AD (Tuvalu) v. New Zealand

A family from Tuvalu appealed the decision to deport them from New Zealand, arguing that they would be at risk of suffering the adverse impacts of climate change — including the adverse effects of natural disasters — and socio-economic deprivation. Unlike in the domestic proceedings in the Teitiota case (domestically known as the AF (Kiribati) case), which made its way before the UN Human Rights Committee after leave to stay was refused, the applicants in this case received leave to remain in New Zealand on the basis of the exceptional circumstances of their case, which were understood to raise humanitarian concerns. The domestic court, the Auckland Immigration and Protection Tribunal, considered the family’s integration, the fact that they were “well-loved and integral members of a family”, and the best interests of their two children, aged three and five years old at the material time. Having regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Tribunal considered that the children’s young age made them more vulnerable to natural disasters and the adverse impact of climate change, and that it would be in their best interests to remain living with their parents in New Zealand. Concerning climate change and environmental degradation as a humanitarian issue, the Tribunal noted that it was “widely accepted that the impacts of climate change can adversely affect the enjoyment of basic human rights” and that “Tuvalu, as a country comprising low-lying topical islands (…) is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. Environmental degradation caused or exacerbated by climate change was already a feature of life in Tuvalu”. Considering these factors on a cumulative basis, and finding that there was no adverse public interest in this case, the Tribunal found that “there are exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature, which would make it unjust or unduly harsh for the appellants to be removed from New Zealand.”

Type of proceedings:

Status of case:

Decision in this case:
The decision of the Immigration and Protection Tribunal in this case can be downloaded below.

Suggested citation:
New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal at Auckland, AD (Tuvalu) [2014] NZIPT 501370-371, Decision of 4 June 2014.

Further information:
For more on this case and an analysis, see Jane McAdam, ‘The Emerging New Zealand Jurisprudence on Climate Change, Disasters and Displacement’, 3(1) Migration Studies (2015), 131–142.

Last updated:
17 August 2023.