UN Security Council steps into climate change

Calls attention to potential threat of climate on international peace

By Betwa Sharma
Published: Friday 22 July 2011

Expanding its role beyond maintaining peace in conflict areas, the UN Security Council, issued its first statement on climate change. Its text was, however, weakened by disagreements about the role of 15-member body in combating climate change as well as on how definitively can climate change be linked to security.

Many countries, especially developing, want climate change to be left to other UN bodies like United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is already dealing with global warming.

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In the debate organised by Germany, which holds the July presidency of the Security Council at the UN headquarters in New York, Russia and China were opposed to climate change being dealt by the Council. The debate aimed to highlight security implications of climate change like the danger faced by small island states from rising sea-levels. “Russia is skeptical regarding the repeated attempts to put the threat of climate change on international peace and security on the agenda of Security Council,” said Russian envoy Alexander Pankin. China said that climate change may affect security but it is fundamentally a sustainable development issue. “Security Council does not have an expertise in climate change as well as the necessary means and resources,” said Wang Min, deputy envoy of China.

But the small island nations differed. “The Security Council has a clear role in coordinating our response to the security implications of climate change,” said Marcus Stephen, President of Nauru. He spoke on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States. “What if the pollution coming from our states threatened the existence of the major emitters? What would be the nature today’s debate under those circumstances,” he questioned.

The Council has five veto-wielding permanent members and 10 non-permanent members. The debate had speakers from the Security Council as well as other countries. India, a temporary member, took the middle path. It said that while the Security Council could be a forum for discussion on climate change, the General Assembly and existing mechanisms like the UNFCCC should be the avenues of action. “It is worth keeping in mind that while the Security Council can debate the issue and may recognise vulnerabilities and threats induced by climate change, it does not have the wherewithal to address the situation,” said Hardeep Singh Puri, India's envoy to the UN.

Several countries including Russia, China Brazil, South Africa, Lebanon as well as other countries of G77 and China, also wanted UNFCCC to have primacy. Jorge Arguello, the Argentina's envoy to the UN warned the debate could create a precedent that will undermine the mandate of bodies already dealing with the problem.

A watered down text was thus adopted late evening of July 20. Proposals to appoint a special representative on climate change and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issuing periodic reports were shelved. “The Security Council expresses its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security," the statement read (read full text here).

Ban stressed that the Security Council can play a vital role in making clear the link between climate change, peace and security. “The Members of this Council bear a unique responsibility to mobilise national and international action to confront the real threat of climate change and the specific threats to international peace and security which derive from it,” he said.

Diplomats from developing countries also expressed concern that some nations want the Security Council to take more responsibilities. In the past few years, several development issues—HIV-AIDS and protection of women and children—have come under the purview of the Council. These countries want matters including climate change to be dealt by the General Assembly since the vote of 193 countries counts in the Assembly, while the five permanent members monopolise the Security Council—these are also some of the largest contributors to global warming, Rafael Archondo, the Bolivian envoy to the UN pointed out.

Other countries do not see how the Security Council can practically deal with problems like HIV-AIDS and food shortages unless it leads to a conventional disruption of peace and security, which can then be remedied by peacekeepers, sanctions and military force.

One official pointed out that if the Small Island States were in danger of sinking then what could the Security Council do about it? The official said that discussion in the Council did not contribute to mitigation and adaptation—two existing international obligations—but rather diverted attention from the lack of progress on climate negotiations. But the other side argued that a sinking country will be an issue for international peace and security since it could lead to internal violence as well as an unprecedented refugee crisis. Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), acknowledged that “uncertainty will define response to climate change.” “But human beings have never planned strategies based on 100 per cent certainty, rather we make decisions based on risk assessments,” he added.

The first such debate was organised by the United Kingdom in 2007 but no statement could be adopted. Strong objections by Russia and China initially suggested that no consensus would be reached, this time around as well. When a failure seemed imminent, Susan Rice, the US envoy, called the situation “pathetic” “shortsighted” and a dereliction of duty." Observers, however, said that reaching consensus on the non-binding statement signalled progress since opposing sides got something out of the debate. Peter Wittig, the German envoy to the UN, stressed that the current exercise was not meant to encroach on the work of the UNFCCC.

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