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Conflict Potential in a World of Climate Change
Conflict Potential in a World of Climate Change
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
Speech / Global

Conflict Potential in a World of Climate Change

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Bucerius Summer School on Global Governance 2008, Berlin, 29 August 2008.

It is a real pleasure to return to the Bucerius Summer School, bringing together as it does policymakers, academics and business leaders from a variety of fields, but still early in their careers, to discuss some of the most difficult and pressing questions facing the world today. It’s not often that I get a chance to speak to a group of the world's best and brightest professionals whose contributions are still largely ahead of them rather than behind them!

This year's program covers, as always, many of the world's most important and urgent challenges, both longstanding and recurrent problems like regional insecurity, inequality and the need to make our international institutions more responsive and capable, but also new sources of anxiety, instability and potential human misery which are different in nature or scale, or both, from anything which policymakers have previously had to confront. And climate change is the mother of all such issues.

Climate change research has developed rapidly over the past decade, with findings resting on a much more robust and comprehensive set of data than ever before. There is now broad agreement that human activities are increasing global surface temperatures at a significant rate and that temperatures will continue to rise through the 21st century and beyond, even in the event of concerted action to stabilise emissions. The past year – with its big debates at the UN Security Council and in statements from EU and G8 states, all following on from the groundbreaking reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – has underscored the central position that climate change now occupies in international policy and strategic thinking.

A recurring theme in the debate – and certainly a staple in all the rhetoric associated with it – has been the potential impact of climate change as a cause of deadly conflict. It has to be said, however, that this dimension of the debate has not always been as nuanced as it might, and that some of the contributions to it might be more persuasive if they were a little more cautiously expressed.

What I'd like to do today is take you through what I believe can, and cannot, be said about the relationship between climate change and conflict, making three basic points:

  1. First, there is unquestionably a general causal connection between the two, at least in the sense that climate change is a "threat multiplier".
  2. Second, that there are, nonetheless, real problems in trying to assess the future impact of climate change in any particular country or region, which has implications for the kind of policy prescriptions that can usefully be offered by governments, or research and advocacy organisations like my own.
  3. Third, that said, there are still some useful general policy positions that can be taken, and that we should be working now on implementing.

General causal connections

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report, and the wealth of publications, events and statements that followed, tell us that many societies may already be suffering the early effects of climate change, and have predicted that in a number of broadly defined regions there will be over time major drops in food production, with shifts in rainfall patterns, accelerating desertification rendering land infertile, or sea-level rise inundating farmlands and furthering the spread of disease.

There are significant variations in the extent to which societies are dependent on climate sensitive resources, and in their likely capacity to withstand the socio-economic impact of climate-change induced shortages. Nicholas Stern’s 2006 report on the Economics of Climate Change for the UK Government foreshadowed some of the findings of the IPCC. He argued that developing countries are particularly vulnerable – due to their dependence on agriculture, high population growth, weak infrastructure and reduced capacity to adapt to climate pressures. That the developing world has contributed least to current rates of global warming makes these findings all the more disturbing.

It is easy enough in all of this to identify highly credible causal connections between climate-change and new security problems, with climate impacts generating wholly new tensions, or intensifying existing societal fault lines and operating as a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions. There are four connections in particular which seem highly plausible:

  • Diminishing access to water, land, or returns on the use of land could increase competition for resources and in turn lead to violence.
  • The same declining access to resources could cause people to move in mass numbers – "environmental refugees" – potentially destabilising neighbouring areas.
  • Increased climate variability – in the form of drought, flooding, cyclones – can produce economic shocks, reducing employment opportunities and increasing recruitment to armed groups, in turn increasing the capacity of those groups to wage war.
  • Environmental migration not just to neighbouring states but to the global North, and divides between responsible and affected states, could strain already fragile relations between North and South – in turn compromising efforts to strengthen dialogue on many issues that demand a genuinely global response, including security issues like responding to terrorism and mass atrocity crimes.

There is ready evidence that any of these pressures can exacerbate humanitarian and security strains with dire effects. Food and fuel shortages in parts of North and West Africa, Haiti and elsewhere, for example, while essentially political and economic in origin, resulted in a series of violent protests earlier this year, in some cases prompting a brutal government response. In Mali, competition for territory and access to natural resources has driven a deadly, decades long conflict between Tuareg rebels and government forces, in a region already marked by political instability and widespread poverty. And there is ample experience in many contexts of large-scale movements of people, across borders or within conflict affected states, generating humanitarian and security risks.

The need for policy caution

But what does all this mean for policymakers here and now? How does it translate into an actionable policy agenda? Here it is important to recognise the very real limitations on what we can sensibly say about the climate-conflict connection, as we move from broad generalisations to particular policy prescriptions.

The first big problem is simply predicting where, precisely, the impact of climate change will fall. Despite considerable and continuing advances in climate change research, we are not yet able to determine where and when changes will occur with any kind of precision. Climate science is not so precise as to enable the assessment of impacts to be country-specific or even wider region-specific, let alone at the sub-national level.

There are for a start unresolved issues which affect prediction generally, like the acknowledged difficulty in assessing the "feedback" effects of global warming. Will melting ice caps mean that with more open water and land exposed to solar radiation, absorbing more of it because they are less reflective than ice, there will be more warming and even more melting? Or will increased temperatures cause particular cloud cover changes, meaning that incoming solar radiation will be reduced and future warming more limited?

There are also more geographically specific problems. Gaps in data, particularly in regions affected by conflict, often in developing countries (and particularly in those affected by conflict), impede systematic and analysis of climate trends, both generally and geography-specifically. As the IPCC’s recent report states, the short time scales of specific climate studies and their limited spatial coverage limit constitute further barriers to precise regional mapping.

And in assessing impacts sub-national and localised environmental factors become relevant. In a country as large as Kazakhstan, for example, environmental conditions vary considerably – with pollution levels, past radiation exposure and farming practices continually altering water access and supply.

All these difficulties have at times combined to produce radically divergent accounts of political and security risks in certain regions. One recent paper, for example, exploring the relationship between climate change and the onset of civil conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa, used a climate model to analyse likely rainfall patterns in sub-Saharan Africa from 2006 through 2059. The authors found that overall levels of rainfall were actually expected to increase, while at the same time rainfall variability would remain relatively stable, over the next five decades. This finding was in some tension with global climate change projections of scarcity and drought, and increased variability, and led the authors to suggest that, "the cataclysmic predictions linking climate change and human security" may not apply to sub-Saharan Africa.

But then again they may. The point is we don't quite yet know: the climate impact predictive models are just not yet good enough., More work is being done to make climate projections more specific and enhance our ability to assess country or regional impacts with confidence. But we are certainly nowhere near, now, the level of confidence that policymakers would like to have.

Even if we could be confident about how future climate change will physically impact on particular societies, the second big problem is judging how that will actually affect human societies, economies, patterns of cooperation and confrontation – and in turn how all this will affect the incidence of violent conflict. And here again we need to be very cautious indeed about jumping to conclusions about particular cases.

We certainly know from experience that natural resources can play a decisive role in conflict situations. Political radicalisation, internal violence and inter-state tension are some of the visible outcomes of the "resource curse" – where energy and minerals-rich countries either lose the wider benefit of their incomes through exchange rate effects, or waste them outright through corruption or misallocation, failing to diversify their economies, educate their people and develop effective and accountable institutions. Conversely, frustration stemming from chronic resource shortage can serve as an important impetus to take up arms.

But in looking to the reality of today's conflicts, and tomorrow's likely ones, identifiable environmental factors invariably interact with multiple other variables – the all too familiar issues of poor government, failures in leadership, ethnic tension and inequitable systems for distributing resources that together drive some of today’s most violent and intractable wars – making it difficult to judge how environment will affect a particular situation.

To take one such example, a number of suggestions have been made over the last two or three years that the "real roots" of the conflict in Darfur lie in long periods of drought in the 1970s and 80s – pushing nomadic communities southwards and leading to confrontations with sedentary Fur and Masalit tributes – and that this is the "first climate change war". But this is an extreme simplification of a very complex situation in Sudan, the main driving dynamic of which has been the determination of the political centre – the NCP regime in Sudan – not to allow the transfer of any real power to the country's long marginalised peripheries. Darfur is simply one of a number of overlapping circles of conflict – there's the five-year-old war between the Darfur rebel movements and the government; the proxy war that Chad and Sudan are fighting by hosting and supporting the other's rebel groups; and the longstanding conflict between North and South, with the negotiated peace there highly fragile as recent events in Abyei have vividly demonstrated.

There have been recurring land tensions between sedentary and nomadic tribes in Darfur and elsewhere, but, as recently underlined by the UN Environment Program for Sudan, increasing rural poverty and displacement to cities have been a more measurable outcome of environmental degradation than conflict as such. More generally, it is interesting to note that the United Nations Human Development Report of 2006 concluded that while reduced access to water constituted a significant threat to the realisation of development goals, it had not proved a major security risk. Any detailed analysis of the evolution of the crisis in Darfur or anywhere else, makes clear the sheer number and complexity of factors which affect when and where violence will emerge, and whether it will continue.

Further complicating any attempt to leap into confident predictions about the impact of climate in generating conflict, is the growing body of work stressing the potential climate change may actually have for generating intra- and inter-state collaboration – in other words, conflict prevention. Water is an important example. While its distribution has certainly often generated tension between states – as it is now doing for example in Central Asia – historically, water scarcity has more often worked to favour cooperation between them. Interstate dialogue prompted by diminishing water supplies, particularly, can build trust and institutionalise cooperation on a broader range of range of issues. Pakistan and India is a current example, with the need to manage water distribution being an incentive to conflict negotiations, with one of the six committees established to manage tensions in 2004 being explicitly devoted to water management.

A much more localised example comes from Uganda. In two regions of this country long affected by a brutal civil war, international organisations have been working with local NGOs, local service providers and affected communities to develop water provision schemes to service the local area. All parties have been brought together to identify how project implementation might best be used to reduce existing community divisions and promote dialogue between local governments and the localities they serve, dialogue that has continued and consolidated since. The value of the project has not only been to reduce current and latent source of tension. It also worked to institute accountable democratic structures and, critically, strengthen capacity to manage conflict without recourse to violence, thereby helping to reduce the potential for its future emergence.

All this makes for a need for caution in any talk about future "resource wars". Environmental stress can form an important backdrop to future violence, reduce opportunities and avenues for conflict resolution and fuel long-term patterns of instability. But it is rarely sufficient in itself to explain large-scale violence, and it may even lead to cooperative outcomes where we least expect it. The crisis in Darfur, violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta, ongoing tensions over access to water in Central Asia all have a clear environmental dimension – but we must not lose sight of the specific and political causes of violence that fuel instability and sadly will likely continue to in the future. The bottom line is that every conflict has its own dynamic, and there is no substitute for understanding all the factors at work.

Bottom lines for policymakers

For all the need for caution that I have been stressing, none of this means that there is nothing useful that can be said or done in policy terms about the climate-conflict nexus. One can take action by way of mitigation, and adaptation.

For all the problems that exist in making the connection in particular cases, the connection in general terms is compelling enough for this to be an important reinforcing argument – supporting all the others out there – for effective global action, now, to mitigate climate change, through a coordinated effort from all states, backed up by the necessary resources, to reduce carbon emissions in order to slow and hopefully eventually stop global warming. This is a critical time to be taking stock, as states meet for the third time this year, in Accra, to discuss how to broker a new post-Kyoto agreement that can drastically curb emissions, while assisting developing countries meet targets without undermining work to reduce poverty and promote economic activity. Without binding commitment to stem the pace of climate change our efforts to manage its impacts will always be working against the tide.

Adaptation means policymakers taking action right now to improve the capacity of societies to adapt to the effects of climate change, whatever they may be and whenever they may be felt. The focus should be on limiting vulnerabilty to potentially damaging socio-economic effects and associated human security risks, for example by:

  • developing initiatives to reduce reliance on climate sensitive activities, improve governance and invest in physical infrastructure;
  • making efforts to bolster disaster preparedness and early warning, including improving military and civilian rapid response capabilities;
  • incorporating forward-looking resource management considerations in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction efforts; and
  • accelerating diplomatic efforts to encourage cooperation over resources before environmental stresses increase.

These propositions closely track some of the basic tools that NGOs like mine have long been advocating for conflict prevention generally, and that many governments and intergovernmental organisations like the UN and EU have been working to improve and refine – good governance, early warning, resource management, effective and timely diplomacy. Much of the framework for implementing climate sensitive responses is, as a result, to some extent already in place – the real challenge, as always, is mobilising the political will and the resources to make it happen.

A good example of the role of effective governance and institutional structures in mitigating conflict risk associated with environmental stress – and, by extension, the negative impact of poor governance and a collapse of necessary institutional structures – comes from Central Asia. The erosion in the post-Soviet era of political structures for coordinating access to shared water reserves – centering on two rivers flowing to the Aral Sea – has had a defining role in the escalation of inter-state tensions. The removal of Soviet oversight, rising nationalism and inter-state competition have all played a role in preventing the emergence of viable and accountable systems for negotiating access to supplies. These factors must be set against parallel socio-economic pressures – rising demand for water to service the dominant cotton industry, and falling supplies, driven partly by the widespread use of wasteful and inefficient irrigation practices. Mismanagement and corruption at the state level has in turn prevented translation of cotton revenues into meaningful social and economic development – creating the conditions for economic stagnation, widespread poverty and political repression at home as elites seek to retain the bulk of cotton's spoils. It is a heady and dangerous mix.

Policymakers in most parts of the world have, it needs to be acknowledged, come a long way in recent years in recognising the link between development and security. The fields were for a long time neatly drawn, with little overlap: development specialists dealt with poverty alleviation; diplomats and defence experts focused on security issues. But the idea of "conflict-sensitive development" has increasingly entered the lexicon of international policymaking – on the back of research confirming the myriad costs of violent conflict for human, economic and environmental security and the evident risk that poorly targeted aid poses for exacerbating conflict’s dynamics

Responding to potential future seeds of instability – the ‘traditional’ development issues of inequality, poverty or resource stress – should form part of a wider agenda of preventing conflict outbreak and recurrence. This includes work to develop accountable political institutions, create equitable systems for managing resources and consolidate the rule of law. Such a forward-looking approach is essential to ensure that societies are able to manage socio-economic stress – whether driven by climate change or otherwise – quickly, effectively and without violence erupting.

In summary, we know that climate change is a hugely important global issue, and we have multiple reasons for tackling it – preventing potential new causes or multipliers of deadly conflict is just one of them. From a conflict analysis perspective, we must remain focused on the intimidating task of trying to understand the multiple pressures and tensions that fuel contemporary violence – of which those induced by climate change are just some. Climate change should not dominate conflict analysis, nor should anxiety about new sources of conflict dominate the climate debate. But there is sufficient connection between them for us to know that in redoubling our efforts at both mitigation and adaptation we certainly won't be wasting our time.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Q&A / Global

What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?

The annual United Nations General Assembly high-level session in the last week of September offered leaders and diplomats the chance to address today’s gravest crises. UN Director Richard Gowan and Senior Analyst Ashish Pradhan reflect on what happened and its potential impact on crisis diplomacy.

What were the most important trends observable at the General Assembly?

The main priority for many participants appeared to be de-escalating crises in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the 14 September attacks on Saudi oil installations. There was a huge amount of speculation at the start of the week over whether U.S. President Donald Trump would meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. While that proved impossible – Iran refused a meeting without guarantees on sanctions relief, and the U.S. was unwilling to offer them prior to the meeting – some lower-profile discussions took place on how to solve active conflicts in the region.

Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation.

There was notable diplomatic activity around Yemen and Libya. The UK, Kuwait and Sweden convened a new “small group” on Yemen, which also included the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, in an effort to coordinate diplomatic support to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ peacemaking efforts. The participants envisage expanding the group to include some of the powers directly involved in the Yemeni civil war, potentially including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in future meetings of this group. Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation. This could lead to mutual de-escalation steps that could support the start of a meaningful UN process.

France and Italy pulled together a similar discussion on restarting the UN-led peace process in Libya. That process fell apart after General Khalifa Haftar (who controls the east of the country) tried to seize the capital Tripoli earlier this year, sparking a war between his forces and those nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The Security Council has been divided over how to act on Libya since then, so this was a chance to reboot the UN approach. Significantly, the Franco-Italian meeting involved not only Egypt and the UAE, which support Haftar, but also Turkey, which backs the GNA.

These meetings at the UN are not decisive in themselves, but send signals about powers’ willingness to cooperate on fixing a crisis. In principle, the fact that France and Italy co-convened talks on Libya was positive, as Paris has ties to Haftar while Rome favours the GNA. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Haftar announced his willingness to engage in UN-led talks last Thursday, the same day as the meeting. But the stagecraft wasn’t perfect. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj used his speech to the General Assembly to brand the General a “war criminal”.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee – involving both supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad – to meet in Geneva under UN auspices this autumn. The UN has been working on this idea as a means to frame a post-war settlement for almost two years, although many of Assad’s enemies fear it will be a sham. It does nothing to address the most pressing threat in Syria, a potentially brutal battle for the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in Syria’s north west. Nor are representatives of the Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces – which hold a quarter of the country – set to participate.

Still, after a long period in which the UN has been adrift over Syria, this is at least a small win for Guterres. And overall the diplomatic activity on the Middle East and North Africa – even including President Trump’s apparent openness to talking with Rouhani – suggested that both the P5 and regional powers see a common interest in lowering the temperature in the region.

Did leaders also focus on crises in Africa?

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel [...] generated a high level of concern.

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, where jihadi groups are gaining territory and inter-communal bloodshed is increasing, generated a high level of concern. French President Emmanuel Macron made a pitch for strengthening both the UN peace operation in Mali and regional counter-terrorism efforts in his General Assembly speech, and Secretary-General Guterres said the world was “losing ground” in the face of violence in the region. While the General Assembly offers a good platform for leaders to raise the alarm on a regional crisis like this, Macron’s focus on a military-led response overlooks that the various military missions already operating in the Sahel have been unable to check escalating violence. As Crisis Group has argued for several years, a more coherent political strategy, potentially including dialogue with a wider array of armed groups, need to complement security operations.

There was also an unusual high-level meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission (normally a bit of an afterthought in General Assembly week) on the situation in Burkina Faso, where jihadi groups have been gaining ground this year. Discussions about humanitarian assistance and community-level conflict resolution were constructive, although some participants felt that the ideas under discussion still do not match the gravity of the brewing crisis and the level of violence on the ground.

Leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

More positively, leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Hamdok, who leads the transitional administration in Khartoum that is meant to pave the way to civilian rule after the fall of Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, handled the opportunity deftly. He won plaudits for signing a pledge of media freedom and agreeing to let the High Commissioner for Human Rights set up a network of offices in Sudan, including in the conflict-affected areas of Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan and East Sudan. Sudan faces an enormous economic crisis, and Hamdok used his trip to New York to call for more economic aid and the end to U.S. sanctions. While his government still relies on the goodwill of the Sudanese military and security services, the Prime Minister made a convincing case for backing the transition.

Tshisekedi has also been trying to win international friends since he took office in Kinshasa at the start of this year after contested elections. His priority has been improving relations with Rwanda and Uganda in particular, with the goal of cooperating against the numerous armed groups that destabilise the eastern DRC. He continued this campaign in New York, participating in a meeting on the Great Lakes to discuss proposals – apparently originally tabled by Rwanda – to create a new regional security mechanism. This would reportedly permit Ugandan and Rwandan troops to conduct anti-militia operations on Congolese soil with the DRC’s permission, possibly supported by Angolan and Tanzanian troops.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi.

Regional security cooperation is certainly needed to tackle eastern DRC’s myriad problems, but President Tshisekedi will have to proceed cautiously. Uganda and Rwanda have intervened in the past in DRC and local memories of abuses their forces committed are a major factor in local and regional tensions. Tshisekedi ought to ensure that any help from his neighbours fits into a political and security plan that makes sense for the DRC. But at least he is talking constructively with his neighbours, and also seems keen to have positive relations with the UN, in contrast to Kabila whose relations with the world body at the end of his tenure were acrimonious.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi – with possible spillover effects in the DRC in particular – around elections next year. The UN still has an envoy to Burundi, but many Security Council members have lost confidence in UN officials’ ability to monitor (let alone affect) the political situation. No new ideas on what to do emerged at the General Assembly.

What other crises were priorities in New York?

There was an awful lot of political theatre around Venezuela, with delegations representing both President Nicolás Maduro and his rival Juan Guaidó attending the General Assembly. But while three high-level events covered the crisis – including one involving President Trump – there was more posturing than real diplomacy over how to find a political solution. The only notable development may have been in Trump’s main speech to the General Assembly, in which he implicitly ruled out any direct U.S. intervention (he noted that Washington would “await” the fall of Maduro, rather than force it). This will have disappointed some of Guaidó’s more hardline supporters, who have continued to hope for U.S. military support. As Crisis Group has argued throughout the crisis, the best way out of the Maduro-Guaidó stand-off remains a negotiated solution involving early, internationally monitored presidential elections as well as political guarantees for both the ruling chavistas and opposition. That did not come any closer last week.

Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda.

Perhaps the General Assembly’s most disturbing feature was the obvious level of Indian-Pakistani animosity over Kashmir. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan not only condemned India’s decision to remove Kashmir’s status as a state and ensuing security operations there, but raised the possibility of an all-out war involving nuclear weapons. Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda, sending Security Council diplomats daily briefings on human rights abuses, while India insists that it is solely an internal issue. In that vein, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not refer to it at all in his General Assembly speech, which came shortly before Khan’s. The crisis will, at best, continue to poison relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, although the UN seems unlikely to be able to do much about it. While China demanded a Security Council meeting on Kashmir in August, the first since 1971, the majority of members appeared disinclined to irritate the Indians.

Also on the Asian front, there were a number of meetings during the General Assembly on the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, but no real sign of a viable solution. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underlined that her country cannot bear the burden of housing the refugees indefinitely. In one potentially interesting development, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss setting up a new trilateral working group on repatriation. Beijing has refused to let the Security Council take any serious action over the Rohingya crisis, and may be looking for ways to settle a situation that complicates its Belt and Road Initiative on its terms rather than via the UN.

China’s domestic and international behaviour came up in a number of meetings. The U.S. and UK co-convened one on the situation of the Uighurs in western China. Western diplomats also used the meeting with President Tshisekedi noted above to raise concerns about China’s growing influence in central Africa. These criticisms are indicative of a hardening of Western attitudes toward China at the UN in the last year.

The U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council.

As Crisis Group has noted in the past, the U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council, agreeing to avoid major public battles similar to those with Russia over Syria. But there are signs of this accommodation cracking. Western diplomats raised the Uighur question in the Security Council this summer, while China came close to vetoing a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in September as it did not reference the benefits of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative for Afghans (Beijing eventually backed down and allowed the resolution through in return for a reference to “regional cooperation and connectivity”). These small spats are not yet significantly impeding the work of the UN. But they may be early signs that deepening Sino-American competition will eventually become a more serious obstacle to multilateral crisis diplomacy.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research