Climate Change and Human Rights Violations in Darfur

By Siamak Sam Loni

In 2003, a violent conflict broke out in Darfur when the Sudanese government launched a brutal military campaign against armed groups in the region. According to United Nations estimates, the conflict led to the deaths of approximately 300,000 people and resulted in the displacement of millions.

The human rights abuses during the conflict were so severe that in 2009, the International Criminal Court was compelled to issue an international warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir on a number of serious charges, including genocide. During the Darfur conflict, entire villages were wiped out; thousands tortured and raped, hundreds of thousands murdered and millions displaced. Following allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing, in 2007 the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) carried out an investigation in Darfur to discover the origins and triggers of the conflict.

Until recently, it was widely believed the brutal conflict in Darfur originated from the social and political tensions in the region between Arab nomads and African farmers, triggered by ethnic divisions. However, as a new report has found, the roots of the Darfur conflict pre-date 2003 and includes a whole variety of factors, including political and religious tensions as well as the legacy of colonialism. But the report also unearthed an unlikely culprit: climate change.

Following the publication of the report, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued, “Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand – an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers. Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

The UN study concluded that “the true genesis of the Darfur conflict pre-dated 2003 and is to be found in decreased rainfall and creeping desertification”, which were predominantly caused by climate change. The report found that the desert in northern Sudan had advanced southwards by 60 miles over the past 40 years, rainfall had dropped by approximately 30 per cent, and crop yields were significantly reduced each season.

An explosion in population growth, coupled with reduced rainfall, drought and extensive desertification leading up to the year 2003, made Darfur an unsustainable environment for maintaining peace among local ethnic groups. Conflict between Darfur’s populations has existed for well over 50 years, with groups often fighting to control scarce resources. This has been a serious point of tension since Sudan’s independence in the 1960s.

The intensity of these conflicts has been escalating as the ecological crisis deepens. While a number of studies have found that government practices were the primary driver behind the conflict, the same studies also place a great emphasis on ecological factors, which were mostly aggravated by the impacts of climate change.

In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the legacy of past violence, manipulation of ethnic divisions by elites in Khartoum, weak conflict resolution mechanisms, systematic exclusion of local groups from political processes, and limited economic and social development were some of the causes behind the violence. However, climate change also played a key role as a trigger for the conflict. The IPCC authors argued in the report, “there is a justifiable common concern that climate change or changes in climate variability increase the risk of armed conflict”.

“We cannot continue to view human rights in conventional security terms
while overlooking important ecological factors.”

Climate change has traditionally been viewed in isolation from matters of national security and human rights. As the conflict in Darfur proves, however, the nexus between climate change and human rights is becoming ever more clear as the planet warms, changing global climate patterns and threatening vital resources. The rapid changes in climate, coupled with a boom in population, is likely to threaten the life line of many groups in Darfur and other fragile societies, ultimately leading to additional tensions and potentially violent confrontations.

Last year the Pentagon announced that climate change poses an “immediate risk to national security”, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stating that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that could intensify challenges such as global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict. Similar statements have been issued by the head of the Australian military earlier this year when Lieutenant-General David Morrison noted climate change needs to be factored into future plans for our armed forces.

World governments have invested billions of dollars to accelerate development and human rights in fragile regions, but policy-makers risk reversing decades of progress in all areas of development if they fail to mitigate regional security tensions, particularly those sensitive to climate variability.

As the United Nations Environmental Program has noted:

Lasting peace will not be possible in Sudan so long as environmental and living conditions remain as they are today. But those conditions are now marked by shortages that pose a threat to survival (because of drought, desertification, deficient rainfall), and which are further exacerbated by global warming. The road from ecological problems to social conflicts is not one way.

It is not difficult to see that with a continued shortage of basic resources – driven in part by climate variability – and the absence of reconciliation and reparation mechanisms, peace and respect for human rights will not be coming to Darfur anytime soon. This is why we cannot continue to view human rights in conventional security terms while overlooking important ecological factors.

Under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings are granted the right to peace and security, and freedom from persecution and violence. Therefore, to better promote the cause of human rights and development around the world, particularly in fragile regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, we must make space in our conversations for ecological factors and climate variability, and begin to view these issues as a serious threat to our security and human rights regimes.

Siamak Sam Loni serves as an executive member of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Australia/Pacific Regional Centre.

Feature image: TreeAid via Flickr