Some issues appear as easy to support as motherhood and apple pie. But not in the U.N. Security Council, where Germany and its supporters spent many hours in negotiations before the council issued a mild statement on climate change's effect on international peace and security.
About 60 countries spoke on Wednesday, many of them concentrating on the havoc that climate change has imposed in their region and the need to stop it. Unlike some of the earth-is-flat debates in the United States, most delegates did not dispute the science of climate change -- and the man-made causes behind it.
The question was whether this was a proper issue for the Security Council to debate, rather than leaving it to other UN bodies already dealing with the environment, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For days, Russia blocked any action. But after amendments were made -- and some reported contacts between Berlin and Moscow occurred -- the council agreed to the statement, which was adopted unanimously by all 15 members.
Nevertheless, the debate was conducted on the assumption that the efforts of Germany's U.N. ambassador, Dr. Peter Wittig, this month's Security Council president, would fail. Many speakers opposed broadening any mandate for the 15-member body in what has turned into a series of attempted blockages whenever the council tries something new.
"We believe that involving the Security Council in a regular review of the issue of climate change will not bring any added value whatsoever and will merely lead to further increased politicization of this issue and increased disagreements between countries," Alexander Pankin, Russia's deputy ambassador, said.
Still, the July 20 council statement linked for the first time the "possible adverse effects of climate change" to international peace and security and asked the secretary-general to report on the security implications of climate change. An earlier, stronger statement had provided a clear link between climate change and conflicts, citing drought, increased migration, food shortages and other potential disasters.
Possibly, the blistering statement by the president of Nauru, on behalf of Pacific small island countries, did the trick. Or perhaps the tough comments from U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice made the difference. But that may be wishful thinking.
Nauru President Marcus Stephen said that after 20 years of failed negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level, there was now so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that disasters were unavoidable as sea levels eroded coastlines, creating migrants in other nations.
It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or terrorism... neither have ever led to the disappearance of an entire nation, though that is what we are confronted with today... I often wonder where we would be if the roles were reversed. What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters?
Turning to council members, he said:
Many of the world's current and aspiring powers sit before me today. I urge you: do not bury your heads in the sand. Seize this opportunity to lead. I implore you to fulfill your mandate by dealing responsibly with the security implications of climate change
U.S. calls naysayers "pathetic" Rice also minced no words. "Because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this council is saying, by its silence, in effect, 'tough luck,' " she said in response to Nauru.
"This is more than disappointing. It's pathetic. It's shortsighted, and frankly it's a dereliction of duty."
The debate was a repeat performance of one that Britain called in April 2007 when China declared that the council had no competence to deal with the issue. This week India and Colombia, among others, echoed this sentiment.
"The council does not have the wherewithal to address this issue," said Hardeep Singh Puri, India's UN ambassador. But cognizant that members hesitated whenever a clear-cut military situation was not on the agenda, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said that "conflict prevention" is and should be "a key element in the council's work."
Germany, which is a nonpermanent council member, had a similar problem last week when Wittig, the UN ambassador, organized a session on children and armed conflict, another fairly straightforward issue for the UN. An earlier resolution called for a "name and shame" list of offenders and possible sanctions imposed on them in the future for killing, maiming or raping children and forcing them to fight.
The new resolution, advocated by UNESCO as well as by Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN under secretary-general leading the project, added the destruction of schools and hospitals to the list of offenses. But an unsuccessful attempt was made to unravel the "name and shame" list by some countries mentioned in the list in annexes to a report. Colombia, whose rebels and pro-government militia had been cited, objected. And Russia questioned whether Coomaraswamy was not over interpreting her mandate of what was meant by an armed conflict.
At the root of the dispute is the council's interference in internal affairs, even when the protection of children is involved. Any hint of human rights usually draws objections from Russia and China, two of the five permanent council members. And since 2003, there is a fear that the United States would use U.N. resolutions to justify an invasion. Brazil, India and South Africa, nonpermanent members, more often than not side with Russia and China, which results in numerous issues left unresolved.
A version of this story first appeared on the InterDependent.