New Publication Unpacks UN Human Rights Council's Potential Role in Preventing Climate-Induced Conflicts

29 January 2024

Our new Research Brief Environmental Human Rights as a Tool in Early Warning and Conflict Prevention: The Role of the Human Rights Council explores the potential role of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) as an actor in the prevention of climate-related conflicts, alongside other multilateral efforts within the UN system.

The paper considers this question against the evolving notion of environmental human rights as component elements of climate security. Specifically, it examines whether the HRC’s monitoring of environmental human rights can serve as an early warning tool to prevent these situations from spilling over into conflict.

A Focus on UN Special Procedures and Key Challenges

The paper discusses the role that the HRC’s Special Procedures – often referred to as the HRC’s ‘eyes and ears’ – can play as early warning tools and to fill gaps in existing apparatus.

‘Special Procedures have the capacity to establish connections between environmental human rights, climate change and violent conflicts, and to detect the early signs of climate-induced and resources-based conflicts’ explains our Head of Research and Policy Studies, Dr Erica Harper.

However, the paper sets out three stumbling blocks that would have to be overcome for the HRC to effectively and efficiently play the role of an early warning and prevention actor in climate security.

A first challenge is that the HRC’s Special Procedures do not collect information on environmental human rights violations at a sufficiently granular level to be of consistent early warning value. A second challenge is the absence of mechanisms that would facilitate Special Procedures drawing the attention of the Council to situations that might spill over into conflict in a time-sensitive manner. Finally, effective prevention requires that early warning be linked to early action. As an inter-governmental body, the HRC’s willingness to engage will always be subject to political forces, and even then, its capacity to mandate action is largely limited to non-programmatic measures.

Specific Recommendations to Boost the HRC’s Early Warning and Prevention Role

Against these challenges, the paper outlines specific recommendations to enable the HRC to play a prevention and early warning role in contexts where the adverse effects of climate change directly or indirectly impact human rights, and escalate the risks of violence and conflict spillovers.

‘Our research shows that to become an effective prevention actor capable of addressing gaps in multilateral efforts to tackle climate insecurities, the HRC would need to overcome inherent limitations in the functioning of Special Procedures’ underlines Dr Harper.

‘It can do so by establishing a comprehensive nexus between climate change, environmental human rights violations and conflict, addressing the absence of mechanisms for timely assessment of gathered information on climate-related and resources-based conflicts, and enabling better opportunities for timely programmatic response’ she adds.

Part of a Research on the Relationship between Conflict, Security and the Human Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment

This paper forms part of a larger research that aims at developing guidance to inform security, human rights and environmental debates on the linkages between environmental rights and conflict, and how their better management can serve as a tool in conflict prevention, resilience and early warning.

Future outputs of this research will include a study on a systems thinking approach to the environmental human rights-conflict nexus.

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