Main page content

How climate change drives conflict and war crimes around the globe

This story has been updated.

Drought, flooding and extreme weather are driving and amplifying violent conflict around the world. At the same time, warfare has devastated ecosystems, imperiled access to vital resources and left behind toxic legacies that sicken civilian populations.

On Thursday, a coalition of human rights organizations and lawyers published an open letter urging the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Karim A. A. Khan, to begin assessing the links between climate change and crimes in the court’s remit. The letter also calls on Khan to prioritize the prosecution of crimes that cause environmental destruction, citing a host of examples:

In the Lake Chad basin, drought and extreme weather have put agriculture-dependent communities in precarious economic situations, increasing the likelihood that young men will be recruited into militant groups like Boko Haram. 

In Ukraine, Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam flooded and forced downstream communities from their homes, caused mass fish die-offs and affected communities’ access to fresh water. 

And in Afghanistan, four decades of near constant war have decimated the country’s landscape and sparked conflict over land rights, water and other natural resources while pollution caused by military operations has sickened war-torn civilian populations.

“Climate change and ecological degradation must be given due legal consideration as the threat multipliers to international peace and security that they are,” said Richard J. Rogers, the executive director of the Netherlands-based Climate Counsel and a signatory of the open letter.

Kahn’s office at the International Criminal Court in The Hague declined to directly respond to the open letter, but in a written statement said the office was preparing a new policy on environmental crimes.

“This policy will elaborate on how the Office will use its jurisdiction to address environmental damage that occurs in the context of Rome Statute crimes,” the statement said, referring to the treaty that enumerates the crimes the court has jurisdiction over. 

The statement also said the new policy will not be limited to environmental damage committed as a war crime, which is already itemized in the Rome Statute, but will also “explore how other Rome Statute crimes may be committed by means of or resulting in environmental damage.”

In recent years, the Office of the Prosecutor has received at least five requests urging the prosecutor to investigate alleged crimes against humanity involving environmental damage in Cambodia and Brazil. The Rome Statute does not explicitly list environmental destruction as an act of crimes against humanity, but legal scholars argue the Office of the Prosecutor has authority to prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes involving environmental destruction. Since the court began operating in 2002, neither Khan nor his two predecessors have prosecuted any environmental crimes.

Gathering evidence on climatic-drivers of crimes, however, would be a new addition to the court’s operations. The signatories of the open letter argue that the task falls within the prosecutor’s existing mandate. 

Rogers said the court’s prosecutor already engages in the gathering of evidence and could add a component on climate change such as asking witnesses if they have experienced changes in weather patterns and if so what effect that had on a conflict.

The idea advanced by Rogers and others is that Khan’s office is well positioned to build a body of knowledge about the connections between climate change and international crimes that could help international institutions and policy makers take action to address the root causes of violence, and ideally prevent it from happening in the first place. 

The open letter, spearheaded by the Sudan Human Rights Hub and Climate Counsel, warned that “nearly every geopolitical crisis on Earth is now marked in one way or another by environmental strife” and made five recommendations including that the court appoint a special advisor on climate security, implement a “forensic” climate analysis into its investigations and publicly support adding “ecocide” to the court’s list of crimes. 

Others who supported the letter are Sudanese Lawyers for Justice, the Sudanese Center for Legal Aid, the Darfur Bar Association, the Darfur Network for Monitoring and Documentation, the Darfur Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees Coordination Body and the Human Rights and Advocacy Network for Democracy.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, NATO and an array of United Nations bodies, including the Security Council and Environment Programme, have to varying degrees sounded the alarm that climate change–while not a cause of conflict in and of itself—is making large scale violence around the world more likely and worsening existing conflicts. 

The open letter highlighted the long running violence in Sudan’s Darfur region, which former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon characterized in 2007 as the world’s first climate change conflict. 

Fighting there began in 2003 when Sudanese government forces and allied militias clashed with rebel groups in the Darfur region, prompting the U.N. Security Council to make its first case referral to the International Criminal Court. Since 2005, the court’s prosecutor has been investigating allegations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity involving mass killings, forced displacement, rapes and other widespread attacks on civilians. 

Following the 2019 outster of the country’s long time dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan appeared to be moving toward democratic rule. But in mid-April of this year, fighting broke out between the nation’s military and a paramilitary group. Over the course of six months, the fighting has displaced millions and killed roughly 9,000 people. In July, Khan announced his office was investigating new allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region. Khan told the U.N. Security Council that his office was reviewing allegations regarding looting, burnings of homes and killings, including the alleged murder of 87 Masalit people by the paramilitary group Rapid Support Force and its allies in West Darfur. 

“We are, by any analysis, not on the precipice of a human catastrophe but in the very midst of one. It is occurring,” Khan told the council in July.

Though the acute cause of the recent conflict in Sudan has been a power struggle over who will control the nation’s political future, Sudanese human rights groups say climate impacts—drought, desertification, rising temperatures and water scarcity—are a root cause and amplifier of violence.

Sudan is one of the five countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change. Over a 40-year period beginning in the late 1960s, rainfall in western Sudan dropped by 30 percent while the Sahara desert has expanded about one mile per year there. Meanwhile, temperatures in Sudan, already one of the world’s hottest countries, have been increasing. These impacts have reduced the amount of land suitable for agriculture and intensified competition for resources. Some farmers who have lost their land to desertification have turned to small-scale gold mining, which has been linked to mercury and cyanide pollution. As women in the parched region are forced to walk longer distances to obtain clean water, they are exposed to higher risks of sexual and other assaults.

Moneim Adam, a human rights lawyer and the director of Sudan Human Rights Hub, said “climatic drivers of conflict and environmental atrocity crimes are now the lived reality” for Sudanese civilians and other communities around the world. 

“Communities already struggling to access sufficient land and water cannot face these crimes alone,” Adam said. “The ICC must address these issues if it is to remain a relevant force for the current century.” 


This article was originally published on

Inside Climate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that provides essential reporting and analysis on climate change, energy and the environment, for the public and for decision makers.