Bonaire v. Netherlands: Climate Change Impacts on Island Communities’ Cultural Heritage Before Dutch Courts

Posted on: February 12, 2024 by

Seven residents and Dutch nationals of Bonaire, a Dutch special municipality in the southern Caribbean, have launched, together with Greenpeace Netherlands, a legal action against the Dutch government over its failure to protect the Islanders against climate change impacts. Based on the right to life (Article 2) and the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as well as the right to culture (Article 27) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Islanders claim that the State’s failure to implement effective climate measures to protect the inhabitants of Bonaire is an unlawful act pursuant to Article 6:162 of the Dutch Civil Code. As the government has not included Bonaire as part of the Netherlands in its current climate initiatives, the claimants also invoke the right not to be discriminated under the ECHR. Under human rights law, the Netherlands has the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all those under its jurisdiction, including the inhabitants of Bonaire, which belongs to the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Thus, the claimants ask the court in The Hague to order the government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to meet its fair share, and to better protect Islanders on Bonaire against climate change impacts by developing adequate adaptation plans.

In the pre-litigation letter, which the Islanders sent to the Dutch government in May 2023, they laid out the acute threat of climate change which is exacerbated by the fact that Bonaire is a low-lying island, particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea-levels. In fact, a study on the consequences of climate change on Bonaire from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam showed that large parts of Bonaire will be submerged if the global temperature exceeds 1.5°C. Consequently, Islanders are facing impacts on tourism and economic development, on public health and on cultural heritage, among other areas.

Slave huts in Bonaire

Zooming in to the Islanders’ claims regarding their cultural heritage, the access and enjoyment of cultural heritage is a recognised part of cultural rights. As can be seen with Bonaire’s Tentative List submission for the inscription of the Bonaire Marine Park on the World Heritage List, nature and culture are closely linked on Bonaire. As set out by the claimants, and in the study from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, nature conservation areas such as Lac Cai in the South of Bonaire are traditionally known for their fishing practices and serve as one of the most visited places by locals. Underwater habitats such as coral reefs, which can be found around the island, provide cultural ecosystem services by offering artistic inspiration or supporting recreation and cultural identity. However, more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change are currently leading to the disappearance of Lac Cai. Similarly, coral reefs are predicted to completely disappear by 2050 without intervention, which will lead not only to the removal of natural habitats with great cultural significance, but also to the removal of an important economic source for Bonaire due to it being a popular diving destination. Other places of great cultural and historical value such as the slave huts and the house at Boca Slagbaai, which are already suffering from flooding, will be further exposed to amplified storms and coastal erosion.

Mangroves in Bonaire

As the claimants highlight in their letter, immediate mitigation and adaptation measures are, therefore, needed so that inhabitants are “able to continue to live safely on Bonaire and pass their traditions and culture on to their children. The culture of Bonaire must be able to continue to exist”. One suggested adaptation strategy against coastal flooding is the restoration of mangroves which are important to the fishermen, who in turn are an important part of Bonaire’s culture. Because of this connection with the Islanders’ culture, this adaptation option is the most accepted one, which correlates with findings of a recent study that climate initiatives which are driven by cultural heritage tend to mobilise communities more effectively. Focusing on the safeguarding of cultural heritage against climate change impacts in the South Pacific region, the research found that safeguarding (intangible) cultural heritage is not only crucial to prevent the loss of culture, Islanders’ identity and cultural diversity, but can also contribute to inclusive mitigation and adaptation measures, which eventually can make communities more climate resilient. Especially for Islanders on low-lying islands, who face potential climate-induced displacement, the safeguarding of their cultural heritage in general, but also before, during and after displacement processes, is of utmost importance.

Because of the particular vulnerability of island communities to climate change and the tremendous threat to their cultural heritage, it is not surprising that the Bonaire Islanders are not the first to demand more ambitious climate action from their government. For example, a group of eight Torres Strait Islanders and six of their children filed a successful petition against the Australian government before the UN Human Rights Committee, in which inter alia a violation of their cultural rights as enshrined in Article 27 ICCPR was found. As referenced by the Bonaire claimants in their pre-litigation letter, Australia is now obliged to implement “timely adequate adaptation measures”.

Whether the court in The Hague will follow in the footsteps of the UN Human Rights Committee and order the Dutch government to take timely and appropriate climate measures remains to be seen. While the Dutch government in response to the Bonaire Islanders’ pre-litigation letter maintained that the Netherlands’ climate targets were appropriate, a positive ruling would not only benefit Bonaire, but also those living on other Dutch islands, showing that the Netherlands has legal responsibilities to all its territories. Previous climate change cases, such as the Urgenda case in which the Dutch government was ordered to limit its greenhouse gas emissions based inter alia on human rights law, have been successful for claimants in the Netherlands. Thus, there is great potential that the Bonaire case builds on these rulings.

Image Credits:

Paul Arps, Slave Huts, 2014, CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Arps, Mangroves on Southwest Coast, 2014, CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To learn more about cultural heritage and climate-induced displacement, see Kristin Hausler and Alina Holzhausen’s article, ‘Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in Climate Displacement: Lessons from the South Pacific’ in the December 2023 issue of Art Antiquity and Law.