The Role of the Security Council as a Lifeguard: A Case of Small Islands Developing States (SIDS)

'The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.'

Dag Hammarskjöld (Former UN Secretary General)[i]

Anthropogenic climate change in the 1970s was seen as an emerging, but peripheral concern by policy makers to be dealt with by respective environmental ministries. With the burgeoning tribulations of climate change exerting unprecedented and de-stabilizing stress from the Arctic to the Antarctic, a need was felt ‘to take into account the specific socioeconomic interests and needs of developing countries in establishing effective environmental protection.’[ii] Although the 1992 Rio Declaration[iii] struck a balance between sustainable development and environmental protection, its direct impact on the peace and security dimension was always lurking somewhere over the horizon. Over the years, notorious acceleration towards the Anthropocene has left an indelible mark on the planet caused by human activity, intensifying the environmental fragilities along with interconnected rise in global risks like economic vulnerabilities, geopolitical tensions, and societal instabilities.[iv] For four years in a row now, climate change has been identified as the gravest threat for global business and industry[v] and it is predicted that if global emissions are not reigned in, the world will experience destabilizing changes posing significant threats to security.[vi] This is particularly true for more fragile regions of the world, of which Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the most conspicuous example, being particularly exposed to sea level rise, shrinking cryosphere, floods, risks to important species, climate adaptations, etc.[vii] SIDS are a distinct group of 38 United Nations (UN) members facing specific social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. They face issues in their sustainable development efforts, such as heavy dependence on external markets, little resilience to natural disasters, fragile natural environments, etc.[viii]

It is this article’s contention that the aforementioned stressors multiplied by vulnerability of SIDS indeed make the impact of climate change on international peace and security palpable, thus making it fall squarely within its Chapter VII jurisdiction. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should act as a lifeguard to save the face of these submerging Islands.

The Special Case of SIDS

Traditionally, climate change has been a challenge to sustainable development of developing countries, but for SIDS, it is a matter of survival of their population, cultural heritage, resources, and territory. Science leaves no question that earth’s biota is disintegrating and as a consequence, sea levels are rising[ix] highlighting the adverse effects of climate change on SIDS. In addition, climate change has recently also emerged as a security threat, both, in its direct impacts and as a ‘threat multiplier’.[x] SIDS are at the forefront and are deeply impacted by factors that arguably demonstrate a threat to international peace and security. More specifically, the combination of factors like their geographical characteristics, remoteness, and poor infrastructures with the ‘threat multiplier’ of climate change makes them inherently vulnerable to storm surges, coastal hazards, increasing natural disasters, and loss of coral reefs.[xi] Some of SIDS could disappear altogether, forcing large numbers of people to relocate - first internally and then across borders. UNSC has already characterized such large scale dislocation as an aggravating threat to peace and security in the situation of Haiti.[xii] In effect, this case of dislocation in SIDS is no different and thus deserves due attention by the UNSC. Presently, there is no international legal framework for people who migrate for environmental reasons, making the term ‘climate change refugee’ void of any legal protection. Internally displaced persons who migrate from one region to another may also fall prey to internal conflicts[xiii] raising important issues of their treatment under IHL since such regional spill overs under NIAC lack adequate legal protections. Disappearance of SIDS or changing coastlines will give rise to territorial disputes with neighbours over exclusive economic zones and maritime boundaries. Other issues like food security, health, political destabilization etc. also are factors that if left unchecked, would disturb international security and stability. Such pre-emptive language was used by the UNSC during the HIV/AIDS pandemic as well.[xiv]

UNSC as a Lifeguard

The acute challenges of climate change on SIDS are tangible and intricately woven with the fabric of human existence, demanding equally acute responses through international governance.[xv] The ability of international climate law to enact positive provisions with tangible results has been largely curtailed. In addition, Kyoto Protocol proved to be ineffective and there is no customary principle directly tackling climate change.[xvi] Relying solely on the Paris Agreement to be effective in the short term would be misplaced and thus, it may be appropriate to address climate change by the UNSC ad rem to deal with its ‘primary responsibility for maintenance of international peace and security’ as per Article 24(1) on the UN Charter.

The UNSC is increasingly acknowledging that comprehensive engagement with core drivers like economic, social, and environmental issues is required to recognise international peace and security issues. Although there has not been a dedicated UNSC resolution on climate change per se, the Council’s position has slowly evolved. Sustained journey by the UNSC began with the discussion of the climate change - security nexus in relation to SIDS for the first time in 2007, receiving an ambivalent response and calling it a socio-economic development issue to be dealt with by the more widely representative General Assembly (GA).[xvii] Subsequent discussions by way of two Presidential Statements,[xviii] along with four ‘Arria-Formula’ Meetings (February 2013,[xix] June 2015,[xx] July 2015[xxi] and December 2017[xxii]), combined with UNSC Resolutions 2349[xxiii] (Lake Chad) and 2408[xxiv] (Somalia) demonstrate a slow journey in acknowledging the security implications of climate change.

The precarious climate-security case of SIDS demands a more peculiar role by the UNSC under Chapter VII to strike the jugular vein of climate change. Reactionary measures to catastrophic events (demonstrated in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks by UNSC Resolution 1373[xxv]) would be a response too late for states whose existence is at stake. SC needs to integrate preventive measures into its long term peace and security strategies because its mandate under Article 24 is not just to resolve, but to maintain peace and security. However, these resolutions have binding legislative character, almost unfettered discretion, few express limits on jurisdiction and virtual immunity from judicial review. This makes it very important for the SC to strike a right balance in the tone adopted so as not to overshoot their powers and at the same time not provoke a veto vote. UNSC’s response to the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak,[xxvi] without qualification, identified it as a threat to peace and security and called for ‘immediate and coordinated international response.’[xxvii] This deviation from traditional working method by UNSC was careful in not encroaching state autonomy. Thus, when the situation demands, UNSC has stepped in its lifeguard shoe to address global problems.


If we expect intervention by UNSC in matters of climate change, then it will be in general and practical terms to engage the problem, but not interfere with state sovereignty. Even if such a resolution does not contain hard obligations, a declaration that the threat of climate change constitutes a threat to peace and security would be epoch-making. It would help address climate change in early warning and conflict prevention stage. A situation like the outbreak of Ebola, which affected thousands of people, was sufficient to constitute threat to peace and security. In the same vein, there remains no plausible reason why climate change, which alone in the SIDS can affect livelihood of almost 70 million people living in these 58 states,[xxviii] in not a matter of international peace and security within the ambit of UNSC Chapter VII powers. Although it may not be expected of the UNSC to get involved in UNFCCC negotiations, it is expected of it to keep the issue of climate change under continuous review, especially when issues have implications for sovereignty and international legal rights from loss of land, resources and people.

Written by Pratik Purswani

Publications Officer

End Notes [i] United Nations, 'Address By Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld At University Of California Convocation, Berkeley, California, Thursday, May 13, 1954, At 10:00 A.M. (Pacific Coast Time)' (1954) <> accessed 11 May 2020 [ii] Johanna Rinceanu, 'Enforcement Mechanisms in International Environmental Law: Quo Vadunt' (2000) 15 Journal of Environmental Law & Litigation 147, p 148 [iii] Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, June 14, 1992, 33 I.L.M. 874 (1992) <> accessed 24 June 2020 [iv] See generally 'The Global Risks Report 2020 (15th Edition)' (World Economic Forum 2020) <> accessed 24 June 2020 [hereinafter ‘Global Risk Report 2020’] [v] Figure 1, Global Risk Report 2020 (n iv) [vi] 'A Security Threat Assessment Of Global Climate Change: How Likely Warming Scenarios Indicate A Catastrophic Security Future' (The Centre for Climate and Security 2020) <> accessed 11 May 2020 [vii] 'Sea Level Rise And Implications For Low-Lying Islands, Coasts And Communities' (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2019) <> accessed 11 May 2020 [hereinafter ‘IPCC 2019’] [viii] 'About The Small Island Developing States - UN-OHRLLS' (UN-OHRLLS, 2020) <> accessed 24 June 2020 [ix] ‘IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers.’ In H.-O.Pörtner et al (eds.) IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate <> p 5 [x] UNSC Meeting ‘Addressing the impacts of climate-related disasters on international peace and security’ (25 January 2019) S/PV.8451<> [xi] Report of the Secretary-General, 'Climate Change And Its Possible Security Implications' (United Nations 2009) A/64/350 <> accessed 12 May 2020 [xii] UNSC Res 841 ‘Haiti’ (16 June) Press Release S/RES/841 (1993) <> [xiii] Reuveny R, 'Climate Change-Induced Migration And Violent Conflict' (2007) 26 Political Geography p 668 [xiv] UNSC Res 1308 ‘The responsibility of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security: HIV/AIDS and international peacekeeping operations’ (17 July) Press Release S/RES/1308 (2000) <> [xv] Murphy A, 'The United Nations Security Council And Climate Change: Mapping A Pragmatic Pathway To Intervention' (2019) 13 Carbon & Climate Law Review, 51 [xvi] Ibid. [xvii] UNSC Open Debate ‘Exploring the Relationship Between Energy, Security and Climate’ (17 April 2007) S/2007/186 <> [xviii] UNSC Presidential Statement S/PRST/2011/15 (20 July 2011) <> and UNSC Presidential Statement S/PRST/2018/3 (30 January 2018) <> [xix] UN ‘Arria-formula’ Meeting ‘Security Dimensions on Climate Change’ (15 February 2013) <> [xx] UN ‘Arria-formula’ Meeting ‘Role of Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier for Global Security’ (30 June 2015) <> [xxi] UN ‘Arria-formula’ Meeting ‘Peace and security challenges facing small islands developing states’ (30 July 2015) <> [xxii] UN ‘Arria-formula’ Meeting ‘Preparing for security implications of rising temperatures’ (15 December 2017) <> [xxiii] UNSC Res 2349 ‘Peace and Security in Africa’ (31 March 2017) Press Release S/RES/2349 (2017) <> [xxiv] UNSC Res 2408 ‘The Situation in Somalia’ (27 March 2018) Press Release S/RES/2408 (2018) <> [xxv] UNSC Res 1373 ‘Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts’ (28 September 2001) Press Release S/RES/1373 (2001) <> [xxvi] UNSC Res 2177 ‘Peace and Security in Africa’ (18 September 2014) Press Release S/RES/2177 (2014) <> [xxvii] Ibid. Preambular, para 13 [xxviii] 'Small Island Developing States Health And WHO' (World Health Organization 2017) <;jsessionid=CB550FA2CFD97394D003C5FF494DA2B1?sequence=1> accessed 13 May 2020