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How UN member states divided over climate security

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Russia this month vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on climate security, despite the proposal’s overwhelming support among member states. This represents a significant setback, but states should continue to push the Security Council to confront climate change's destabilising effect on international peace.

On 13 December, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on climate security tabled by Ireland and Niger. This draft resolution was a relatively modest text, focusing on improving the UN’s analysis of the links between climate change and instability in countries and regions on the Council’s agenda, and requesting the Secretary-General to produce a report on these issues by December 2023. Russia argued that there was not enough evidence to justify these links and complained that the Irish and Nigeriens had made insufficient efforts to secure consensus for their initiative. While twelve Council members voted for the resolution, India opposed it on similar grounds to Russia, and China abstained.

Although the resolution failed, it was popular among the wider UN membership. Ireland and Niger invited states inside and outside the Council to co-sponsor the text (as Crisis Group had recommended) and 113 did so. This was the second highest number of co-sponsors for any draft resolution in the Council’s history – 134 states backed a successful resolution on the fight against Ebola in 2014 – and yet it understates the level of support for the draft, as some countries tried to add their names to the list after the deadline to do so had passed.

The level of support for the resolution was highest among European states (see map in the PDF). Nearly two thirds of Latin American and Caribbean states co-sponsored the text, as did 26 of the 54 African members. All three African members of the Council – including Kenya and Tunisia in addition to Niger – had been strong supporters of the initiative. Among the broader UN membership, support was notably high among states from the Sahel region, where the Council has already acknowledged climate change as a security threat. Just before the vote on the Irish-Nigerien text on 13 December, Russia tabled a resolution of its own on sources of instability in the Sahel, including references to environmental matters in addition to threats such as terrorism. This may have been meant as a sop to Niger or simply as a distraction from the main resolution. Neither Ireland nor Niger saw this narrow and regionally focused text as a real alternative to their own, and talks on the Russian draft last week were desultory.

Three members of the Security Council – France, Kenya and Vietnam – that backed the Irish-Nigerien draft in talks this summer and autumn did not co-sponsor the draft. France was concerned that a Russian veto would set back discussions of climate security in the Council and urged Ireland to avoid a showdown (the U.S., by contrast, seems to have supported a tougher line toward Russia). Kenya’s refusal to co-sponsor the text appears to have been linked to dissatisfaction over the outcome of the November UN climate summit in Glasgow, where developing countries were disappointed by richer nations’ limited offers of financial support for climate adaptation. Despite their qualms, the three countries did finally vote in favour of the resolution.

China’s abstention was striking, as the Chinese in coordination with India and Russia had formally objected to Ireland and Niger bringing the issue to a vote. Council members, apparently including the U.S., had warned China – which has historically been quite reluctant to use its veto – that a negative vote could hurt their image as leaders on climate change diplomacy more generally. In explaining his vote, the Chinese ambassador took the opportunity to highlight developed countries’ responsibilities to assist poorer countries in responding to climate change. He even suggested the Security Council set up a mechanism to monitor this, although this was most probably meant to be a dig at the Western supporters of the resolution, rather than a serious policy proposal.

The high level of co-sponsorship for the resolution has led some diplomats to suggest that countries concerned about climate security should table a similar text in the UN General Assembly, where members do not have vetoes. France has suggested a General Assembly initiative along these lines in the past. Taking this route might have advantages, as the Assembly could call for an even broader survey of climate and security challenges, looking beyond the countries and regions on the Security Council agenda. But tabling such a resolution would mean entering a new round of negotiations and absent a big effort by the sponsors could have less impact than a Council product: General Assembly resolutions typically lack the profile of those from the Security Council and can be anodyne.

Whatever happens in the General Assembly, members of the Security Council that backed the Irish-Nigerien resolution will continue to push for references to the effects of climate change in mandates for UN peace operations and political missions, although some worry that India, Russia and – notwithstanding their recent abstention – China will now push back on these case-by-case references more firmly (in part to avoid creating precedents for future thematic resolutions on the topic). It is unlikely that anyone will table an updated version of the Irish-Nigerien resolution in 2022. Brazil will join the body in January and align with the climate security sceptics, making talks on a new text more difficult.

The Security Council’s stumble on climate security follows its poor showing on COVID-19 last year when the U.S. and China held up an agreement on a resolution on the security implications of the pandemic for months. This latest setback provides ammunition for those that argue that the Council is unable to keep up with new and evolving security threats. Nonetheless, the high level of support for this resolution suggests that many states would still like to see the Council play a greater role in tackling these non-traditional threats. Sadly, the destabilising effects of climate change on international peace and security may have to become more glaring before all members of the Council concur.