Interstate Collaboration for Human Security: The Lessons from Copenhagen

Interstate Collaboration for Human Security: The Lessons from Copenhagen

Prof. Dr. Arthur Lyon DAHL
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the 6th ECPD International Conference on National and Inter-ethnic Reconciliation, Religious Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans - The Human Security Concept Implementation, Brioni Islands, Croatia, 28-29 October 2010

Climate change from anthropogenically-induced global warming is a perfect example of the need for interstate collaboration. The threats to human security are already evident in extreme events such as the floods in Pakistan affecting 20 million people, and the fires in Russia putting pressure on global food prices. Sea level rise alone from global warming could displace at least 100 million people in this century. Climate change is a planetary problem affecting all states, with common but differentiated responsibilities. It is also a major ethical issue: the rich can afford to adapt and thus refuse to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions by changing their lifestyles; the poor have no means to adapt and will suffer the greatest impacts (Dahl 2007; Dahl 2010b).

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009 demonstrated the difficulty of getting all nations to collaborate and reach consensus, even on a scientific issue where the evidence is overwhelming (Dahl 2010a). What started as a simple Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol became a summit on the future of the planet. The weight of scientific opinion was assembled at the International Climate Change Science Congress in March 2009 with 2,000 experts attending (Richardson et al. 2009). As a counterweight, vested economic and political interests funded a massive campaign by climate sceptics to destroy confidence in science. Civil society raised expectations to a high level, with 35,000 accredited representatives in Copenhagen and thousands more who could not participate directly because of the limited capacity of the conference venue.

At the conference, the conflicting interests of states were evident, represented at the two extremes by small island developing states pleading for their survival, and oil producing countries defending their main source of revenue. Under the consensus rule, any one state could hold all the others hostage to its self interest. Only a dramatic last minute effort by the US President to hammer out an agreement with Brazil, China, India and South Africa prevented complete failure while marginalizing the rest of the world.

Copenhagen demonstrated the failure of the present intergovernmental machinery, including the United Nations, to be able to respond even to an urgent problem of human security. It showed that a system that gives primacy to national sovereignty and self-interest is incapable of managing global problems. The short-term interests of national political leaders and multinational corporations weigh more heavily than the common good. The failure of most industrialized states to meet their engagements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol also showed that states were untrustworthy and could not be counted on to respect even their legally-binding commitments. In the absence of trust or some mechanism for monitoring and accountability, most countries hold back waiting for the others to act. The result is a paralysis of will.

For the Balkans, there are obvious lessons to be drawn from this failure at the global level to act for interstate collaboration on human security, in spite of the scientific imperative and the evident human and economic consequences:

1. The fundamental importance of trust
It is difficult if not impossible to sign an agreement with someone you do not trust, and in the absence of any mechanism to enforce the agreement. Measures to establish good will and to prove trustworthiness are an essential prerequisite to reconciliation and interstate collaboration. These can start in domains that are not too politically sensitive like environmental protection or natural disaster preparedness and response. Developing a sense of trust among negotiators at a personal level can also help.

2. The need to acknowledge the priority of the common interest
Quarreling among the crew on a sinking boat is counterproductive when all efforts should be devoted to stopping the leak. The common threat, or the advantages of collaboration, need to be made sufficiently clear that they outweigh the inevitable short-term sacrifices for each party.

3. Consultative mechanisms in which all seek the best outcome for the collective whole
The negotiating process should be based on an honest and transparent sharing of different perspectives and needs in the search for an outcome most advantageous for the human security of the whole Balkans region. In most cases this will come through collaboration among all of the states and unity in diversity, reducing threats between states and achieving a critical mass and economies of scale when faced with the pressures of a globalizing world.

4. A just balance of conflicting interests, with compromise and equitable compensation where necessary
There are inevitably areas where there are conflicting interests, and winners and losers, in any collaboration. Rather than the outcome being determined solely by the balance of power and wealth, human security requires compromise and sometimes compensation, so that everyone feels that the efforts and benefits are shared equitably. Only an agreement that is seen as just and equitable by all parties and stakeholders will achieve the support necessary for its implementation.

Human security is best advanced when interstate collaboration is founded on commonly agreed ethical principles implemented in an open and transparent process that earns the support of the public.


Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2007. Ethical Challenges of Climate Change. Paper presented at the 11th Conference of the International Environment Forum, Ottawa, Canada, 12 October 2007.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2010a. Climate Ethics and the Copenhagen Summit.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2010b. Human Security and Climate Change: The Ethical Challenge, pp. 124-131. In Takehiro Togo and Negoslav P. Ostojic, editors, National and Inter-Ethnic Reconciliation, Religious Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans, Proceedings of the Fifth ECPD International Conference. European Center for Peace and Development of the University for Peace established by the United Nations, Belgrade.

Richardson, Katherine, Will Steffen, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Joseph Alcamo, Terry Barker, Daniel M. Kammen, Rik Leemans, Diana Liverman, Mohan Munasinghe, Balgis Osman-Elasha, Nicholas Stern, and Ole Wæver, 2009. Synthesis Report from Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions. International Scientific Congress on Climate Change, Copenhagen, 10-12 March 2009. Copenhagen, University of Copenhagen.

Last updated 26 November 2010