Address at the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement

Last updated: 6/20/2011 // The Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century.Oslo, 6 June 2011.

Your Royal Highness,
High Commissioner,
ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Oslo and to the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century.

The people in the photograph on the conference programme have a story to tell – as do all human beings. The photograph, taken by the Norwegian photographer Rune Eraker in 1996, is entitled “Rue de l’Espoir” – people in transition. Eraker stayed with a group of nomads in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania for many weeks. He saw how they struggled and how they finally had to leave their homes and way of life and follow the road leading westwards – with all their belongings – desperately seeking work and a new place to live. They ended up in the slums outside the capital, Nouakchott. The road is called “Rue de l’Espoir” – but none of us is sure whether or when “l’Espoir” – hope – ever materialises for these men. 

Dear friends, we are gathered here to find the roads leading to hope – to a better future for thousands of people. Robust laws, sound frameworks and treaties are some elements for one of these roads, i.e. one answer – not all of them. This year we are commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the Statelessness Convention. Norway joins other states and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in renewing our commitment to assisting refugees and internally displaced persons. 

When UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981, for the second time (first time in 1954), the then High Commissioner, the Dane Poul Hartling, said in his Nobel Lecture here in Oslo that “throughout the history of mankind people have been uprooted against their will... People in fear have had to make a most dramatic decision: to take the uncertain, even perilous road to exile, from home, community and homeland... (...) But, throughout history, mankind has also reacted to such upheavals and brought succour to the uprooted, offered help and shelter...”

It is a huge task to help and protect refugees and internally displaced persons, and there are many unmet needs.

At the same time, emerging global trends are compelling us to look at the broad picture of migration. The signs of our time. Climate change is indeed the big amplifier:

Natural disasters are becoming more disastrous. Livelihoods are eroding faster. Larger numbers of people are being forced to move.

There are strong indications that displacement will be a major consequence of global climate change. People are literally being “uprooted” – to borrow the word Hartling used in his Nobel Lecture.  

People forced to move is a powerful reminder that urgent action is needed to reduce climate change, in the same way as the ice melting year by year in the Arctic is a wake up call – a reminder  of how fast the climate is changing, and of the importance of reaching global climate agreements at the negotiation tables.

How should we act now to be ready for this challenge? That is the fundamental question we are here to discuss.

The Crown Princess has just given us a portrait of the man whose name we are borrowing for this meeting – Fridtjof Nansen – on the 150th anniversary of his birth. His legacy – as a polar explorer, scientist, nation builder, internationalist and humanitarian – is truly global, and highly relevant to the topic of this conference: climate change and displacement.

As a scientist, 120 years ago, Nansen was preoccupied with the ecosystems and sea currents in the Arctic, as he was amazed to discover that driftwood from Siberia was found on Greenland. He studied how the polar ice changed over time and the consequences of such change. Nansen was – as we have just heard – the first High Commissioner for Refugees, under the League of Nations. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his efforts to deal with the humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of refugees, stateless people and prisoners of war stranded after World War I.

One of the ways to honour Nansen – in addition to remembering his polar achievements – is to allow ourselves to be inspired by his legacy as we respond to the challenge of climate change and displacement in the 21st century. As these waters may prove turbulent – if I may use such imagery – we should look to Nansen for inspiration and courage. He was an outstanding navigator and an innovative humanitarian.

This is why we – in discussion with the UNHCR – have come up with the idea of establishing a common set of broad principles – the Nansen principles – that should underpin actions to prevent or manage displacement, and protect displaced people in the face of climate change.

I will now say a few words about some of these principles. You will have an opportunity to read about them in detail during the conference.

First, we need to base our response on solid knowledge and clear thinking about the complex, international issues at hand. We must build a robust understanding of the nature of climate change and its implications for ecological and human welfare.

Understanding is key. When Fridtjof Nansen spoke about how the international community should assist the suffering people of Europe, he said – in his Nobel Lecture in 1922 – that “the first prerequisite, surely, is understanding – first of all, an understanding of the cause and the nature of the disease itself, an understanding of the trends that mark our times...”

Today – when it comes to understanding – we need, for example, to distinguish between internal and cross-border or external displacement, and between sudden-onset and slow-onset situations (and these may be hard to distinguish). We should not resort to ad-hoc categories, and given the multi-causality of climate change, there will never be a clear-cut category of people called “climate refugees”.

Moreover, the use of the term “refugee” is confusing, and we must not risk diluting the concept of refugee as defined in the Refugee Convention. The stark reality is that there are already millions of displaced people due to natural disasters, a large proportion of which are climate-related, and all of them are environmentally displaced persons.

Second, climate change (including in the Arctic) and the resulting displacement concern us all, so this is also a question of values. We have a shared responsibility to respond to the humanitarian impacts of climate change.

We must ensure that our responses are guided by the fundamental principles of humanity, human rights and international cooperation.

States affected by climate-related processes have a primary duty to protect their populations. When national capacity is limited, regional and international cooperation – such as by the UNHCR – should support action at national level.

Moreover, national and international policies need to be implemented on the basis of non-discrimination. The voices of the displaced and those threatened with displacement must be heard.

Third, our response should fully utilise the possibilities already provided in existing international law.

The good news is that existing international law provides a viable framework for protecting all internally displaced persons, including those displaced for climate-related reasons. This framework is set out in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

There are weighty humanitarian reasons for establishing a protective framework for people displaced externally owing to sudden-onset disasters, including those where climate change plays a part. States, working in conjunction with UNHCR, could develop a guiding framework or instrument in this area.

There is international consensus today that the Refugee Convention should be left as it is.  However, it is possible that the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement could be used as a basis for addressing sudden-onset environmental displacement across borders. 

An important principle to consider in this context is non-refoulement.

I would like to make one important point here. I have noted that some have spoken of the inhabitants of small island states as being at risk of becoming stateless should sea levels rise to cover their landmass.

This is not correct since, legally speaking, statehood would continue. No doubt, they would be in need of protection elsewhere.

You can be assured, however, that Norway would take all appropriate steps, in accordance with international law, to promote the continued international legal personality of these states, irrespective of the rise of sea levels.

We would not deny any disaster-stricken states their rightful voice in the international community, would not strip any of their inhabitants of their nationality.

It is likely that much of our time at this conference will be devoted to sudden-onset situations. Nonetheless, I would like to point out that slow-onset disasters, such as sea-level rise and desertification, deserve our attention as well.

Generally speaking, I don’t think slow-onset displacement is best dealt with by taking a legalistic approach, but rather by a combination of site-specific preventive measures and, possibly, planned migration.

This brings me to my final point:  

Priority must be given to joint international efforts to reorient emergency preparedness and response systems to better support the management of climate change-induced displacement.

This should be based on effective partnership between the international community and affected governments, regional institutions and affected communities. Priority should be given to developing capacity at local level, where the impacts are largest.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Nansen Conference is a meeting place for the scientific community, civil society and decision makers. I am pleased to see so many experts from various groups gathered here.

We have a very able team – trained in this field – to facilitate our discussions: Margareta Wahlström, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, will chair the conference; and Harald Dovland, the former chief climate negotiator for Norway, is vice-chair.

At the end of the conference, they will provide us with a chair’s summary to ensure that the meeting makes a tangible contribution to the global debate on climate change and displacement. 

We are not hosting the Nansen Conference with a view to answering all the questions. But we will be better equipped to explore various solutions, in order to – as Nansen put it in 1922 – “bring faith in the dawn of a new day”. Thank you.


(*) This the full version of Mr Støre’s speech, published on web and distributed among conference participants. At the opening of the conference he gave a shorter version.


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