Conflict and the environment


The UN General Assembly declared 6 November the International Day for Preventing Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

Humanity has always counted war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, the environment often remained the unpublicised victim of war. Water wells have been polluted, crops torched, forests cut down, soil poisoned and animals killed to gain military advantage.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found over the last 60 years, at least 40% of all internal conflicts were linked to exploitation of natural resources, whether high value such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse.

Last week UNEP head Inger Andersen said: “Greater action is needed to protect the environment during wartime if the world is to realise the goal of a more sustainable future for all people and the planet”.

Despite protection afforded by several legal instruments, the environment continues to be “the silent victim of armed conflicts worldwide”, according to UNEP.

Andersen stated environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent conflict.

“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 for extractive resources, can exacerbate tensions and lead to conflicts, as is the case for resource depletion issues such as deforestation, soil erosion and desertification.”

From Agent Orange to ISIL

Public concern over targeting and use of the environment during battle first peaked during the Vietnam War, according to UNEP, where deployment of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange led to massive deforestation and contamination.

The resulting international outcry sparked creation of two new international legal instruments: the Environmental Modification Convention in 1976 and an amendment to the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the conduct of war, a year later.

Extensive pollution caused by intentional destruction of oil wells in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War sparked further calls to strengthen legal protection of the environment during wartime.

Since then, devastation continues. For example, the bombing of dozens of industrial sites in the Kosovo conflict in 1999 resulted in toxic chemical contamination. More recently, ISIL militants set oil wells on fire retreating from areas in Iraq they previously held, triggering the release of what UNEP described as a “toxic mix” of gases and other compounds.

Andersen noted in recent decades, there have been fundamental changes in how the international community understands challenges to peace and security.

The rise in non-state actors means security is not just viewed in terms of conventional military threats.

“This evolving security landscape requires a shift in the way the international community engages in conflict management”, she said.

“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.”

UNEP has worked since 1999 to determine the environmental impacts of war. This includes identifying gaps and weaknesses in international laws that protect the environment during wartime.

“If we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to act with urgency and coherence to reduce the threats armed conflicts pose to our environment and ultimately our health and livelihoods”, she said.

“On the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict there is only one way forward: to up our ambition to protect our planet, even in the most complex and challenging scenarios.”

The UN attaches great importance to ensuring action on the environment is part of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding strategies, because there can be no durable peace if natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.

On 27 May 2016, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution recognising the role of healthy ecosystems and sustainably managed resources in reducing the risk of armed conflict.