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Bringing rights into resilience: revealing complexities of climate risks and social conflict

This paper takes a rights-based approach to understand how cultural, political and social norms and practices influence resilience.
Multiple Authors
Hannah Peck


While the complex nature of the linkages between the human and the natural have been recognised for more than a decade, the integration of the cultural, political, and social context into resilience remains an outstanding challenge. This paper argues that a better understanding of this complex context is essential if the challenges of environmental change and disaster risk are to be addressed adequately in conflict and post conflict settings.

Marginalisation and exclusion are expressed in social conflict and are determinative in distributing risk and resilience. This paper builds on recent literature that has adopted a human rights lens to explore how resilience practice can better account for issues of equity and power. Using the illustrative case of Timor-Leste, it presents an analysis of how human rights principles play out in the settings in which rights are given meaning.

The approach reveals the reproduction of patterns of conflict and risk, and suggests two key priorities for resilience practice: first, recognising and responding to the deep-rooted narratives and procedures that normalise inequality and marginalisation at different scales; and second, allowing for transformation towards more equitable political and social arrangements as a part of resilience practice. Augmenting resilience with rights-based thinking can situate resilience practice, such that it responds to the complexity of social arrangements, reducing risk and social conflict.

This paper was published on 06 August 2018 in the journal Disasters.

*An brief introduction to methods and learning from the paper is provided below. Options to access the full paper are available here (limited access).


The central question in this paper, is: how can appreciation of the socio-political context be embedded in resilience practice in conflict and post-conflict settings? To address this, we build on recent literature that has adopted a human rights lens to explore how resilience practice can expose how the institutional, political, and social environment leads to the inequitable distribution of resources and capacities of individuals within social-ecological systems. Specifically, this paper adopts a rights-based analysis to expose processes and forms of exclusion and marginalisation, many of which are feedbacks or unintended consequences that arise in complex social relations, as illustrated by the case of post-conflict Timor-Leste, where social conflict and the risks presented by environmental change are sharply defined. While this approach has wide relevance, the particular focus here is on resilience practice enacted through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and movements.

Table 1 The application of rights principles in rights-based analysis (from page S293)

Resilience and the right based approach:Table 1 illustrates how the rights principles give rise to a series of critical questions that can be explored in relation to each rights regime, through participatory qualitative approaches with communities and stakeholders at different scales. These questions—in relation to the principles—translate concepts with respect to the power and social relations that emerge from the resilience literature into issues that have meaning to, and can be explored with, communities on the ground.

Revealing power in resilience: an illustrative case study:Timor-Leste provides an appropriate case with which to explore the efficacy of rights-based analysis, as both social conflict and the risks posed by environmental change are sharply defined. This study takes as its starting point work reported by Ensor et al. (2015), adopting Timor-Leste as an illustrative example, and drawing on peer-reviewed publications and widely published reports, in particular the findings of a community-based climate change adaptation assessment undertaken from August 2012–March 2013. The latter was conducted in participation with farmers and fishers from communities across the island of Atauro, around the coastal sub-district of Batugade, and with local NGOs and district and national government representatives. Ensor et al. (2015) adopted a rights-based approach to perform a detailed analysis of ‘entry points’ for actions on adaptive capacity in Timor-Leste. The current study builds on this work, but the focus is different. The concern here is with how the intersection of principles and regimes identifies the conditions underlying marginalisation and exclusion that are, simultaneously, expressed in social conflict, and are determinative in distributing risk and resilience. This analysis suggests that there are three themes that are particularly significant if the socio-political context is to be embedded in resilience practice in conflict and post-conflict settings. These themes—(i) inequality and subjectivity; (ii) processes of inclusion and exclusion; and (iii) the significance of scale—each arise in relation to power and equity in the socio-ecological resilience literature (Matin, Forrester, and Ensor, 2018). These themes are discussed in the paper in detail.​

Lessons Learnt

The rights-based analysis of Timor-Leste suggests opportunities to support transformation in each of the rights regimes and through inclusive actions at different, and frequently across, scales. Learning includes:

  • Entrenched discrimination and inequalities are a particularly challenging target for resilience interventions, arising from norms and practices that are deeply rooted in the cultural, political, and social context.
  • Climate change will probably reinforce the livelihood-related impacts of forms of difference that are expressed in resource access, whereas adaptation interventions will reproduce these subjectivities in the absence of deliberately targeted efforts to shift underlying discourses and narratives, alongside more readily observable practices.
  • Women’s empowerment organisations, in which increased awareness of rights is wedded to practical measures to reduce financial dependency (through livelihood activities) and political dependency on men (through support for improved capacity for women’s representation), can, over time, challenge the processes identified above that close down accountability.
  • Support for marginalised groups to claim and secure recognition for their entitlement is central to rights-based development actions, especially when coupled with awareness-raising and capacity-building in the political regime among those decision-makers responsible for securing (or undermining) those claims.
  • Multi-stakeholder fora have been proposed as an approach to containing politics in ways that enable transformation through a focus on reworked relationships. For example, social learning platforms, in which multiple stakeholders look to understand their different perspectives and forge new knowledge through joint learning and action, have the potential to foster and underpin ‘more democratic governance’, as stakeholders engage in processes of defining problems and solutions, ‘examining the drivers of change, and discovering differential vulnerability among actors’.
  • In Timor-Leste, interventions that work with the community leadership while supporting women or marginalised rice farmers in organising and representing their interests may help to improve transparency and reduce discrimination in decisionmaking, unlocking an important opportunity for more inclusive responses to environmental change.
  • Significant in Timor-Leste is the presence of existing civil society networks advocating for accountability and transparency in administrative decision-making and recognition of the rights of subsistence farmers and fishers. The efforts of these groups to transform the relationship between the state and subsistence communities should be acknowledged and supported by external actors, who can offer resources, such as information and knowledge, or access to decisionmakers, that may not be accessible locally. This means, however, NGOs or other intervening entities ceding power and decision-making, negotiating their contribution in a struggle that is framed and owned by local activists.


This paper responds to requests that resilience ‘engage with the insights and critiques from the social sciences about agency, power and knowledge’. It agrees with the view that resilience must be situated, to contextualise interventions. Resilience alone does not equip policymakers or practitioners with the conceptual or practical tools necessary to address the cultural, political, and social context within which hazards become disasters. In post-conflict settings, a key point of concern is those forms of social difference that are reinforced through cultural, political, and social norms and practices, and which underpin inequalities, sustain social conflict, and may give rise to future violence.

A rights-based analysis has particular utility for meeting this challenge. A rights-based approach offers an ‘experientially based, empirically verified and theoretically supported’ form of analysis. This paper moves beyond recent studies linking rights and resilience, by concentrating on how human rights principles play out in the regimes in which rights are given meaning. It demonstrates the analytical significance of this approach in exposing the complexity of relations that are poised to reproduce entrenched patterns of conflict, risk, and vulnerability through resilience interventions. Situating resilience requires attending to this social complexity, alongside the more readily observable interconnections between human and environmental systems.

Looking across the rights regimes in Timor-Leste suggests that the application of resilience requires: 1. attention to subjectivities and the deep-rooted narratives, practices, and routines that normalise inequality and marginalisation at different scales; and

2. that actions on resilience must be understood to include actions in support of transformation, where transformation is required to address inequality.

These insights take resilience practice beyond risk management concerns, to incorporate the forms of awareness-raising, capacity-building, networking, and support that can lead to profound shifts towards more equitable political and social arrangements. Interweaving resilience and rights-based thinking has the potential to deliver a politicised form of resilience practice that reduces, rather than reinforces, risk and social conflict.


Ensor, J.E., S.E. Park, E.T. Hoddy, and B.D. Ratner (2015) ‘A rights-based perspective on adaptive capacity’. Global Environmental Change. 31. pp. 38–49.

Matin, N., J. Forrester, and J. Ensor (2018) ‘What is equitable resilience?’. World Development. 109 pp. 197–205.

CItation: Ensor, J. , Forrester, J. and Matin, N. (2018), Bringing rights into resilience: revealing complexities of climate risks and social conflict. Disasters 42, S2, 287-305. doi:10.1111/disa.12304

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