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Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement; Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement; Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

6 June 2011

Oslo, Norway 6 June 2011

Check against delivery

Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, Madame Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen, It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to be with you today.

Fridtjof Nansen was by any standards a remarkable man, unswervingly committed to the protection of refugees, but at the same time a heroic adventurer who fearlessly ventured into lands affected by extreme climatic conditions.

Nansen continues to be an inspiration to us all, and it is particularly appropriate that we should be gathering in his own country and city for this conference on the linkage between climate change and displacement.

* * *

Let me begin by quoting some of the newspaper headlines that we have read in the past 12 months.

July 2010: "Devastating floods in Pakistan sweep people and property away."

September 2010: "Famine in Niger intensifies: more hungry people fleeing south to Nigeria."

March 2011: "Mass migration predicted from South Pacific islands threatened by rising tides."

And May 2011: "Philippines struck by tropical storm: 400,000 people affected".

While we are still struggling to understand the precise causes and consequences of such terrible events, there is growing evidence to suggest that natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity, this is linked to the longer-term process of climate change.

At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that natural disasters and climate change cannot be regarded or addressed in isolation from the other global mega-trends that are conditioning the future of our planet and its people.

Population growth. Urbanization. Water scarcity. Food and energy insecurity. And volatile commodity prices.

As we look into the future, it seems certain that these trends will increasingly interact with each other, creating the potential for increased competition and conflict over scarce natural resources. As a result, we are also likely to see growing numbers of people being displaced from one community, country and continent to another.

And while growing numbers of people may be obliged to abandon their homes and move elsewhere, many of them will not qualify for refugee status under the terms of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

* * *

Let me go into a little more detail with respect to the issues of climate change and environmental degradation, which I consider to be the defining challenge of our times. Indeed, of all the global mega-trends that I have mentioned, climate change is the one that has the greatest multiplier effect in terms of human security and human mobility.

When the average global temperature increases by one per cent, it is estimated that grain yields decline by ten percent.

Last year was the warmest year in more than a century. Record-breaking temperatures were recorded in 37 countries. Traditional systems of agriculture are being undermined as a result of this trend. The latest UN figures indicate that a billion people, one in seven of the world's population, go hungry every day.

The declining availability of water is equally worrying. According to some studies, more than half of the world's population now live in countries where water tables are falling and aquifers are being depleted. Just as a billion people are hungry, a similar number have no access to safe drinking water.

In addition, millions of people are at risk of having to move to avoid the impact of drought, desertification, salinization, coastal erosion and other long-term environmental processes.

In such slow onset disasters, people are not displaced or obliged to move as the result of a single event. Instead, an accumulation of factors leads to a tipping point at which people's lives and livelihoods come under such serious threat that they have no choice but to leave their homes.

In other instances, natural disasters, whether they be earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or tsunamis, will uproot large numbers of people in a matter of hours, forcing them to flee for their lives in conditions that resemble refugee movements.

And of course, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, those least responsible for the process of climate change, will be most seriously affected by such events.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

As recognized at the Copenhagen conference, we cannot afford to ignore these potentially calamitous environmental trends.

We must also come to terms with the fact that the international community has hitherto lacked the political will to establish effective mechanisms to reduce the pace of climate change. And it is not easy to see how the obstacles to such an agreement will be overcome.

This situation makes it even more important for us to establish a massive programme of support to the most seriously affected countries, thereby reinforcing the resilience of their citizens and their ability to adapt to the process of climate change.

But even if we are able to mobilize the international community in this way, the extent of mitigation we are able to achieve may not be enough to prevent human displacement. Indeed, mobility seems likely to be part of the solution for some affected populations.

When it is no longer viable for people to live in their usual place of residence, they must be allowed to exercise choice with regards to their future. When planned evacuation or relocation to safer areas is unavoidable, this should be done in close consultation with them and with full respect of their human rights.

As noted at the recent expert roundtable in Bellagio, many of whose participants are with us today, there is broad consensus that much of the movement prompted by climate change will be within national borders.

Primary responsibility for the protection and well-being of affected populations will therefore rest with the states concerned. I encourage those states to ensure that their responses are fully consistent with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

I am also encouraged by the decision of the African Union to go a step further, formulating a binding treaty for the protection of internally displaced people.

If governments in the developing world are to protect the rights and meet the needs of displaced citizens, they will need strong support from the world's industrialized and industrializing states: those countries which bear primary responsibility for the process of climate change.

Regional frameworks and international cooperation should buttress action at national level and contribute to building national capacity.

But the nature of such support must change. Traditionally, the international community has responded to disasters and displacement in emergency mode, establishing camps, distributing food and water, building schools and clinics.

We must now reconsider our approach. The billions of dollars spent on relief in recent decades have evidently not led to the sustainable strengthening of national and local capacities. National adaptation plans should take full account of the linkage between climate change and human mobility.

Such plans must also recognize that a growing proportion of the people who are forced to leave their land will move to urban areas, where it makes no sense to accommodate victims in camps or to establish separate services for them.

A development-oriented and area-wide approach is thus required, ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society are able to enjoy the human security and human rights to which they are entitled.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even if we are able to mitigate and respond to the issue of climate-related internal displacement, there will still be a protection gap in relation to people who are displaced across borders, as well as those who have already moved to another country and are unable to go home.

Under the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention, whose 60th anniversary we commemorate this year, such people are unlikely to be recognized as refugees under international or national law..

Indeed, UNHCR has refused to embrace the new terminology of "climate refugees" or "environmental refugees," fearing that this will complicate and confuse the organization's efforts to protect the victims of persecution and armed conflict.

Even if they are not refugees, such people are entitled to our support and to have their voices heard and taken into account. But what form should that support take?

There is a general recognition that in the current context, it will not at all be easy to establish a binding new international instrument relating to the rights of such people.

Xenophobia is already widespread, fuelled in many instances by populist politicians and irresponsible elements in the media.

I strongly believe that a more viable approach would be to at least develop a global guiding framework for situations of cross-border displacement resulting from climate change and natural disasters.

UNHCR stands ready to support states in the development of such a framework, which could take the form of temporary or interim protection arrangements.

We could assist in the identification of scenarios in which such arrangements would be activated. And we could help to develop procedures and standards of treatment for affected populations.

Regional and sub-regional treaties such as the free movement protocols of the Economic Community of West African States could also be invoked in this respect.

While those protocols were developed primarily to strengthen economic integration, and while they were not intended to be a refugee or human rights instrument, they may have a new relevance in relation to the plight of people who move from one country to another due to the consequences of climate change and natural disasters.

At the forthcoming ministerial meeting that we will be convening in relation to the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, UNHCR will invite states to make specific pledges in relation to the gaps that exist in the current protection system.

We also hope that the meeting will lead to increased international cooperation and more effective inter-agency coordination in relation to those gaps, particularly the current absence of any temporary protection arrangements for people who have been forced to move across borders by the impact of climate change and natural disasters.

At the same time, steps must be taken to address the plight of people living in small and low-lying islands, whose lives, livelihoods, culture and identity are threatened by rising sea levels. Such scenarios are quite different from the situations of statelessness which have confronted us in the past.

The international community has an obligation to support such states and their citizens, not only by means of preventive and mitigating measures, but also through orderly and equitable migration programmes for those at most serious risk and innovative legal frameworks for statehood to preserve national identity.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me say a few words with respect to UNHCR's efforts in the domain of climate change.

First, we are trying to develop a better understanding of this phenomenon and its linkage to human mobility. In a joint initiative with the UN University, for example, we are talking to vulnerable populations in the Horn of Africa, trying to learn how they are adapting to the environmental threats with which they are confronted.

Second, and recognizing the need to reinforce our efforts in relation to disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, we have recently welcomed a seconded expert from the Norwegian Refugee Council to strengthen our capacity in this respect.

Third, we are striving to incorporate the principles of sound environmental management in all of our field operations.

Through the provision of solar cookers, as well as solar-powered heating and lighting systems, for example, we hope to 'green' our refugee camps and reduce their carbon footprint. At the same time, we are committed to planting ten million trees a year, so as to stabilize the environment in areas affected by mass displacement.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Fridtjof Nansen personified the values, commitment and 'can do' attitude that is needed to tackle the process of climate change and the population movements associated with it.

It would be particularly apt, I believe, if this conference were to recommend a set of principles, which could perhaps be known as the Nansen Principles, for the protection of people who have been forced to leave their own country as a result of catastrophic environmental trends and events.

The articulation of such principles, underlining the need for displacement responses to be guided by the fundamental notions of humanity, human dignity and human rights, would be a valuable contribution to the ministerial meeting that is planned for December. They would also serve as a fitting tribute to the pioneering spirit of the first High Commissioner for Refugees.

In a speech made in 1926, Fridtjof Nansen observed that "we all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life. Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go."

Let those inspirational words motivate us as we contemplate ways of strengthening the protection available to the victims of climate change and natural disaster. It may be a long and hard trail, but we must listen to the call of those people.

Thank you very much.