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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Security Council Briefing "Maintenance of International Peace and Security: "New Challenges to International Peace and Security and Conflict Prevention"

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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Security Council Briefing "Maintenance of International Peace and Security: "New Challenges to International Peace and Security and Conflict Prevention"

23 November 2011

New York, 23 November 2011

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies,

Let me begin by expressing my sincere appreciation for this opportunity to address the Security Council.

The past 12 months have witnessed many momentous, often disturbing and sometimes inspiring events, including those that have taken place in countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

On one hand, many of those events have confronted the Security Council with enormous challenges in its efforts to maintain international peace and security.

On the other hand, they have required my own Office to respond to a succession of emergencies, providing protection and assistance to refugees and other displaced persons, often in the most hazardous operational environments.

While the Security Council is an intensely political organ, and while UNHCR is required by its Statute to be strictly humanitarian in character, we find ourselves preoccupied with many of the same crises, working towards the common goal of enabling people to live peaceful, productive and prosperous lives.

It is in that context of mutual endeavour that I would like to turn to the theme of the presentation I was asked to give today, which is that of human displacement and climate change.


* * *

We live in a world that is on the move. Information, ideas, capital, culture and people are all crossing national and continental borders in larger volumes and at a much greater speed than at any previous time in history.

With respect to the movement of human beings, patterns of migration, mobility and displacement are changing. Increasingly, the traditional distinction between migrants, who cross borders in search of a better life, and refugees, who are forced to flee persecution and conflict, has become blurred.

More and more people are being forced to flee due to reasons that are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. As they lose their livelihoods and coping mechanisms to environmental degradation, they often find themselves with no other option but to move on. They are not migrants in the typical sense, but neither are they covered by the refugee protection regime.

In many parts of the world, refugees, asylum seekers, irregular migrants, the victims of human smugglers and traffickers are following the same routes, making use of the same means of transport, and are confronted with the same risks and dangers, especially when travelling by sea.

The patterns of movement are changing. Meanwhile, the scale of human displacement is also growing.

According to UNHCR's latest statistics, 43.7 million people have now been uprooted around the globe as a result of armed conflict and human rights abuses alone. Amongst this number are more than 10 million refugees who are of concern to UNHCR and nearly five million Palestinian refugees who are supported by UNRWA.

Some 27.5 million people are currently displaced by conflict within their own country, an increase of 10 million in the past 12 years. The vast majority of these people are to be found in developing countries which lack the capacity to respond to large-scale influxes and population displacements.

It is not difficult to understand why so many people abandon their usual place of residence and flee in search of safety elsewhere. Persecution. Violence. Authoritarian rule. Failures of governance. Economic collapse. And natural disasters. Such are the immediate causes of the displacement crises that we witness across the world today.

And one only has to look at the tragic case of Somalia to see how all of these different factors can co-exist and combine, with the appalling outcome that more than a quarter of that country's citizens have now been uprooted.

* * *


In this context, a principal reality of the contemporary world is the accelerating pace of climate change, as well as the international community's failure to address this issue in an effective manner.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our times: a challenge which interacts with and reinforces the other global megatrends such as population growth, urbanization, and growing food, water and energy insecurity. It is a challenge which is adding to the scale and complexity of human displacement; and a challenge that has important implications for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Let me elaborate on that statement.

As you know, recent years have seen the publication of many books and articles that speculate as to the number of people who will be forced to move over the next two or three decades as a result of climate change.

Twenty million? Fifty million? One hundred million? There seems to be no consensus on this matter.

But perhaps that is because the wrong question is being asked.

Climate change is not an independent variable, a phenomenon that can be examined in isolation from the many other economic, social, political and ecological processes that determine the level of human security available to people in different parts of the world.

In this respect, there is little value in posing the simplistic question, "how many people are going to be displaced by climate change?"

Instead, we should be addressing the more complex issue of the way in which global warming, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other manifestations of climate change are interacting with and reinforcing other global imbalances, so as to produce some very powerful drivers of instability, conflict and displacement.

I would like to make reference to four of these important linkages.

First, the process of climate change is limiting the amount of land available for cultivation in many developing countries and is simultaneously reducing agricultural productivity.

Confronted with the growing levels of poverty and food insecurity, more and more young people are making their way from rural to urban areas, where they struggle to find jobs. Massive youth unemployment, together with another consequence of climate change - volatile food, energy and commodity prices - has proven to be a clear source of social and political unrest.

Second, climate change is reinforcing the potential for conflict within and between states by intensifying the level of competition for scarce resources, including water, grazing and arable land.

As we have seen in many parts of the world, longstanding resource management systems are coming under growing pressure, making it increasingly difficult for countries and communities to share common assets in a regulated and peaceful manner.

Many commentators have pointed to the potential for so-called 'water wars' over transboundary freshwater reserves, with an evident potential to uproot large numbers of people. According to the UN Environment Programme, the conflict in Darfur has been at least partially driven by the process of climate change, environmental degradation and the struggle for access to land and water.

Researchers at Berkeley, Stanford, New York and Harvard Universities, looking at rainfall and temperature records in Africa between 1980 and 2002, indicated that global warming is strongly related to the incidence of armed conflict, with a one degree temperature rise increasing the potential for conflict by fifty per cent. I believe it is too early to use fool-proof scientific quantifications, but the linkage is clearly there.

Third, there is growing evidence to suggest that the growing frequency and intensity of natural disasters is closely linked to the process of climate change.

Natural disasters have the capacity to displace large numbers of people just as much - and with the same tragic consequences - as the conflict-related movements with which UNHCR has more traditionally been engaged. According to one estimate, more than 40 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2010 alone.

Fourth, as the representative of an organization that has a mandated responsibility for both refugees and stateless persons, I would like to make reference to the linkage between climate change and citizenship.

While this cannot yet be described as a global concern, there are small island states confronted with rising sea levels and simultaneously becoming highly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Where will these people go if and when it becomes impossible for them to remain in their own country? Some of them may be able to acquire a second nationality once they have been obliged to move. But how will they retain their national identity? Is the world ready to accept the idea of a state without a territory? These are questions that the international community has only just started to consider and which now require serious attention.

* * *


The process of climate change and its role in reinforcing other global imbalances constitutes an important threat to peace and security. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, and which for the first time is facing physical limits to economic growth, that threat can only grow.

Although many might argue that climate change does not fall within the competency of the Security Council, the linkages I have set out here today cannot be ignored when looking at matters of security. The strands that make up this complex picture - climate change, population growth, food insecurity and water scarcity - are the subject of many separate summits and debates, but the international community has no forum today which allows for a comprehensive discussion of and response to these trends. I firmly believe that this governance gap has to be closed so that more holistic strategies can be found to address this process.

So far, it has to be acknowledged, the international community has lacked the political will and cooperative spirit required to reduce the pace of climate change. Immediate steps are necessary to mitigate this process, to introduce appropriate adaptation strategies and to limit the extent to which climate change acts as a driver of conflict and displacement.

At the same time, we must provide protection and sustainable solutions to those who are forced to abandon their homes and support the growing number of refugees and displaced people who, having fled armed conflict, are then struck by natural disasters. Such 'double victims' are of growing concern to UNHCR.

Let me say a little more about the challenges of adaptation, protection and solutions.

At the 2009 Copenhagen conference, there was a broad consensus that the communities most likely to be affected by the consequences of climate change are those who bear the least responsibility for its acceleration. Populations in developing countries are also more exposed to disasters and less able to cope with their effects.

I consequently consider it imperative for the international community to establish a massive programme of support for adaptation in those nations, so as to reinforce the proven resilience of their communities and citizens. And such action should take full account of the fact that women - especially poor women - are most seriously affected by climate change and natural disasters.

Even if we mobilize the international community in this way, it seems unlikely that the degree of adaptation we are able to achieve will be enough to avert human displacement completely. Indeed, mobility seems likely to be one of the adaptation strategies employed by affected populations.

That is why I believe it would be appropriate for the international community to formulate and adopt a set of principles, specifically designed to reinforce the protection of and to find solutions for people who have been forced to leave their own country as a result of catastrophic environmental events, and who may not qualify for refugee status under international law.

I urge all UN member states to support such an initiative. UNHCR will be hosting an intergovernmental event at the ministerial level in Geneva in two weeks, where we will examine these and other protection gaps affecting the world's forcibly displaced people.

Finally, let me underline the importance of integrating the issues of climate change and human displacement in all of our conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peacebuilding endeavours, including the participation of the forcibly displaced in peace talks and political solutions.

People should not be obliged to abandon their homes in order to survive. And once they have been uprooted, they must be given our full support in finding sustainable solutions to their plight.

Providing such support is a humanitarian imperative. But it is also in our common interest. If climate change goes unchecked, and if we fail to find sustainable solutions for displaced populations, we will be creating the conditions in which further breaches of international peace and security are certain to take place.

Thank you very much.