Communities facing conflict, climate change and environmental degradation walk a tightrope of survival

Statement to United Nations Security Council Open Debate on the Humanitarian Effects of Environmental Degradation and Peace and Security
Statement 17 September 2020

Thank you for the opportunity to brief you and to the Government of Niger for organizing today's Security Council meeting.

For decades, the discussions on humanitarian challenges centered around the consequences of either armed conflict or disaster. Each had its specific and distinct laws, protocols and procedures which informed humanitarian action and there was little crossover between the two.

Accordingly, the Security Council maintained its focus on conflict-related humanitarian challenges. It focused on security issues, and mitigating impacts on vulnerable populations such as civilians, women, children or displaced communities; on protected places like hospitals or schools; on the availability of weapons and their use; and the need of belligerents to comply with the law.

The ICRC has increasingly noted that communities living on frontlines of war, violence and devastation are more frequently – and more urgently – citing climate shocks as a key issue of concern, alongside poverty, injustice, exclusion and weapons availability.

For decades now, environmental dimensions have been incorporated into the ICRC's humanitarian response: for example, on the explosive remnants of war and land contamination; the management of waste; or ensuring safe drinking water.

Our operational response has paved the way for more in-depth policy reflections on the links between environmental degradation, climate risk, humanitarian needs, and peace and security.

While some of the concerns reported by affected populations are fears of future disasters like rising desertification or displacement from extreme-weather events, others are living the horrors today.

Communities living in the Sahel and Lake Chad region are among the most resilient in the world. But in the face of the cumulative pressures of conflict, climate change and environmental degradation, they now walk on a tightrope of survival.

Last week I visited Niger and Burkina Faso, where people told me about their experiences of rising violence and displacement: yes - they are displaced firstly because of conflict and violence as well as violations of laws and principles. But they also recognize the increasing tensions between communities because of changing rainfall patterns and scarcity of land for agriculturalists and pastoralists. They talk about the erosion of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms in communities and the manipulation of tensions by armed groups or irresponsible leaders.

At the same time, the same communities are hit with damaging floods and droughts. More than one million people were forced to flee their homes in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso because of conflict and violence over the past year, leaving them highly vulnerable to the next shock - such as the deadly floods of the past weeks.

How can the Security Council, how can we all, as frontline humanitarian organizations, support those who were chased out of their lands and are surviving in precarious conditions; those who have lived for months or years in leaking shelters or cramped rooms shared with host families; those who are now flooded by torrential rainfalls?

For too long the world has neglected the Sahel, leaving vast humanitarian needs. Yet climate change and environmental degradation is felt more dramatically there than in many other places around the world.
Years of conflict, under-development and criminality have led to fragile social and economic systems and enormous humanitarian needs.

The ICRC sees these patterns repeated across many of the conflict zones in which we work around the world. It is starkly evident that people affected by conflict are also disproportionately impacted by climate shocks and environmental degradation.

This also includes those living outside of regular governance systems. It is ICRC's estimate that around 66 million people worldwide today are living in areas controlled by non-state armed groups and thus are outside of adequate governance efforts to deal with the complexities of the issues we are talking about today.

Urgent action from members of the Security Council – from all States as well as legal experts, development, climate and humanitarian actors is critical.

But what action?

Let me share one predominant message that I bring home from visits to ICRC's operations in the field: affected populations do not want handouts, even if they may need them temporarily. It doesn't matter if the cause is conflict or disaster, or both, people demand an independent future, one in which they can feed their families without our help.

With this in mind, ICRC's focus today is two-fold –

Firstly: on providing humanitarian action which mitigates the impacts of conflict and protects communities from harm. We are invested in helping to build strong and resilient communities that can withstand environmental degradation and successive climate shocks.

We work at the levels of systems, communities and individuals: from building walls which protect communities from floods, to supporting new micro-economic enterprises, introducing waste management systems and practices, to vaccinating livestock and distributing drought-resistant seeds.

The second area of ICRC's focus is on the respect of International Humanitarian Law. In light of the climate crisis and extensive environmental degradation in war, the ICRC is accelerating its outreach to States and next week will release its updated Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict.

The Guidelines will assist States and others to interpret and apply IHL and to incorporate its rules in military manuals, as well as in national policy and legal frameworks to enhance the protection of the environment.

Dear colleagues, from the Sahel and Lake Chad region, to war zones around the globe, millions are suffering on the frontlines of environmental degradation, climate change and conflict.

Peace and security will not be established by focusing only on military and security measures to curb conflict and violence.

We must ensure those most at risk are urgent priorities. Building resilient communities alongside efforts to protect those communities from violence is critical. Robust action needs to be well-framed and executed in strict respect of laws and principles to avoid fueling further cycles of violence.

While many of us may agree in general terms on the linkages between peace, security and our climate and environment, the "how" of our response still needs more critical analysis and sharing of experiences.

The ICRC would welcome more regular and systematic discussions on today's issue. This would allow us to learn from one another, to design contextual and innovative responses, and critically, to ensure a greater impact over time.

Je vous remercie, Monsieur le président, et je vous encore une fois félicite de votre hospitalité que j'ai éprouvé la semaine dernière en vous visitant à Niamey.