Curbing negative environmental impacts of war and armed conflict
Message from the Executive Director on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict
In recent decades, two fundamental changes have shaped the way the international community understands challenges to peace and security.
Firstly, the range of potential actors of conflict has expanded significantly to include non-state entities. Indeed, security is no longer narrowly conceived in terms of conventional military threats. Today, state failure and civil war represent some of the greatest risks to global peace.
Secondly, the potential causes of insecurity are being better understood. In 2004, the report of the Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change highlighted the fundamental relationship between the environment, security, and social and economic development in the pursuit of global peace in the 21st century.
In 2007, a historic debate at the UN Security Council recognized that “UN missions and peacekeeping operations deployed in resource-endowed countries experiencing armed conflict could play a role in helping the governments concerned, with full respect of their sovereignty over their natural resources, to prevent the illegal exploitation of those resources from further fuelling the conflict”.
Environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent conflict. However, the exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses can be implicated in all phases of the conflict cycle, from contributing to the outbreak and perpetuation of violence to undermining prospects for peace.
Access and flow of water, land degradation, floods and pollution, in addition to competition over extractive resources, can directly exacerbate tensions and lead to eruption of conflicts, as is the case for resource depletion issues such as deforestation, soil erosion and desertification.
This evolving security landscape requires a shift in the way the international community engages in conflict management. From conflict prevention and early warning to peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, the potential role of natural resources and the environment must be taken into consideration at the onset.
Since 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has conducted over twenty post-conflict assessments to determine the environmental impacts of war. UNEP has also contributed to identifying gaps and weaknesses in international laws that protect the environment during war and armed conflict.
Through resolutions passed at UN Environment Assemblies in 2016 and 2017, Member States demonstrated their recognition of the need to improve protection of the environment in times of armed conflict.
We particularly laud the International Law Commission’s adoption, on 8 July 2019, of 28 draft legal principles to address the causes and consequences of war and armed conflict on the environment.
However, if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to act with greater urgency and coherence to reduce the threats armed conflicts pose to our environment and ultimately our health and livelihoods.
On this International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict we have only one way forward: to up our ambition to protect our planet, even in the most complex and challenging scenarios.