Governments can no longer ignore war’s impact on people - and planet

A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm.
A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm.
The United Nations’ International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict takes place on November 6. The international community must face up to the reality that protecting the environment from conflict is vital to protect people, argues DOUG WEIR.
This year's #EnvConflictDay should be an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been achieved.

Since its inception in 2001, the United Nations' International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict on November 6th has mainly served as a reminder of how the environment remains a forgotten victim of warfare.

However, in recent years there have been signs that the international community is slowly beginning to address its collective blind spot over the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts.

This process is becoming ever more urgent as ongoing conflicts continue to reveal the means through which the environment can act as both facilitator and victim of warfare, and the price that people and ecosystems pay for our indifference.

Risk factors

The United Nations General Assembly resolution establishing #EnvConflictDay in 2001 drew attention to warfare'simpairment of ‘...ecosystems and natural resources long beyond the period of conflict', and often ‘beyond the limits of national territories and the present generation'.

Were it to be rewritten today, it seems inevitable that it would also highlight the links between environmental degradation and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

It would likely consider the importance of natural resources in building peace and avoiding conflict. It might reasonably be expected to address the legacy of conflict on the ability of states to deliver effective environmental governance, as well as the challenge that this poses for sustainable development and post-war recovery. In all likelihood it would also flag climate change and water scarcity as risk factors for insecurity.

All of these additions reflect the significant expansion in our understanding of how conflict influences, and is influenced by, the environment.

Enormous challenges

And the lessons keep on coming. In Iraq, Islamic State has cynically demonstrated that oil and water resources can be utilised in the pursuit of scorched earth policies.

In Syria, and beyond the environmental health risks caused by the massive destruction of its cities, the deliberate bombing of oil facilities has indirectly caused an astonishing growth in artisanal oil refining, with as yet unknown consequences for the environment and for the health of communities.

This year's #EnvConflictDay should be an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been achieved.

In eastern Ukraine, three and a half years of conflict in a highly industrialised region is already thought to have led to massive groundwater pollution from flooded mines, while shelling continues to risk causing serious damage to industrial facilities.

In the Lake Chad Basin, climate change is partly to blame for a conflict that has resulted in a vast and complex humanitarian emergency.

In Somalia, decades of conflict have disrupted delicate dryland pastoral systems and livelihoods, contributing to the rise in armed groups. For Afghanistan, efforts to restore its denuded forests and ensure their sustainable management are being hampered by insecurity.

Meanwhile post-conflict Colombia faces widespread mercury pollution from gold mining, alongside the enormous challenge of balancing the protection of biodiversity with the demands of economic development.

Signs of progress?

These examples, and many more besides, are not going unnoticed by the international community. At a recent United Nations' event on humanitarian response and the environment, organisations from both fields pledged deeper cooperation on the early identification of environmental health risks created by conflicts.

This approach was recently applied to mapping urban environmental hazards caused by the destruction of Mosul, and a growing number of forward-thinking humanitarian organisations are now recognising the need for an integrated approach, examining how the environment affects their operations, or is in turn affected by them.

Iraq, which is just beginning to count the cost of the environmental damage wrought by Islamic State, is seeking to highlight the threat posed by the toxic remnants of war in a resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly this December. In doing so it is encouraging UN Environment to review its capacity to monitor and respond to the risks posed by conflict pollution.

In a further sign of progress, last year the assembly passed an historic resolution on conflict and the environment by consensus, in what has been viewed as the most significant text of its type since the 1991 Gulf War oil fires.

Nevertheless, the failure of the body to pass a resolution calling for a fresh United Nations led assessment of the environmental conditions in Gaza at the same meeting revealed that politics can still trump environmental and humanitarian considerations.

A modest victory

The United Nations Security Council has also struggled with politics as it has sought to address conflict and the environment, in its case on the security implications of climate change.

During the last decade several mainly European countries have tried to encourage formal and informal debates on the topic but have often found themselves blocked by Russia, China, the G77 and the Non-Aligned Movement.

There were some signs of hope earlier this year when members agreed to a resolution on the situation in the Lake Chad Basin, which included a reference to: ‘...the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the Region, including through water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity...'.

That the text also emphasised the important role that climate risk assessments and risk management strategies could play in the early identification and response to climate-induced insecurity was a modest victory for those governments and organisations engaged on the topic.

Another environmental dimension currently being pursued by states, academics and think tanks, and which is closely linked with climate security, is that of water and conflict.

Illegal exploitation

For the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, the topic includes the equitable use of water resources as a tool for preventative diplomacy, as well as a vehicle for post-conflict peacebuilding.

Their approach is driven by global population and climatic pressure on water resources, and the widespread targeting of water infrastructure in recent conflicts. They too believe that the topic should be addressed by the Security Council as a priority issue for international peace and security.

Against this backdrop, and with little fanfare, the United Nations' International Law Commission is midway through a multi-year project to review the weak state of legal protection for the environment in relation to armed conflicts.

Along the way, the commission is proposing new legal principles to help protect the environment before, during and after conflicts. In some places they are refinements of existing laws, in others fresh interpretations based on how states and international organisations have acted in the past.

The process is all the more important because, unlike peacetime environmental law, the laws protecting the environment from warfare have barely evolved since the 1970s.

Rights of communities

There are further tentative signs of progress at the International Criminal Court, where last year its prosecutor issued new guidance on the selection of cases. The guidance included proposals to try cases involving: ‘...the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land'.

Applying such approaches to conflict settings would be complex, regardless of whether the damage has been caused by governments or armed groups, but the prosecutor's proposals are indicative of a move towards greater recognition of environmental crimes.

Similarly, recent work at the United Nations' Human Rights Council to increase the recognition of environmental human rights has also considered the links between wartime environmental degradation and rights.

Its special rapporteur on toxics having recently identified that ‘Existing laws intended to protect the environment during armed conflict have proven insufficient to prevent serious pollution and other forms of exposure to hazardous substances', threatening the rights of communities in conflict-affected areas.

Where should we go from here?

All of these initiatives, across all their many fora, are contributing towards momentum for change, both in how the environment is protected in conflict, and in how the international community responds to harm or to environmental risks.

While positive, they are just the beginning of a process. How that process develops will be in the hands of governments, international organisations and civil society, in particular those who have experienced the consequences of damage first hand.
What should the next steps be?

It's clear that the collection of data on wartime environmental damage must be increased, both as a means of minimising harm to people and ecosystems in the short-term, and to help inform policy in the longer term.Improved data collection is also vital to help document human rights violations and environmental crimes that occur during and after conflicts.

As the Lake Chad example suggests, work is also needed to enhance the United Nations' ability to monitor and respond to environmental risks. And it's also clear that much more could be done to ensure that natural resource management is prioritised in post-conflict planning, and that resources and technical assistance are made available to ensure that conflict-affected states can rebuild effective environmental governance.

Finally, it's becoming increasingly clear that we have a generational opportunity to finally tackle the weak legal framework intended to protect the environment in relation to armed conflicts. However doing so will require the coordinated efforts of governments, lawyers and civil society: a major undertaking but perhaps no more unrealistic than a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Concerted action

This year, NGOs and leading experts have marked #EnvConflictDay by calling for greater progress in efforts to protect people and the environment from the impact of warfare.

Highlighting the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, the 30 organisations and 10 experts argue that conflict pollution, and damage to ecosystems and natural resources, pose immediate threats to human health and threaten reconstruction and peacebuilding.

The signatories include humanitarian, environmental, legal and development organisations, as well as experts in healthcare and conservation.

For the first time in many years, this year's #EnvConflictDay should be an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been achieved, and not just the problems we face. But more importantly, it should also be a call for concerted action to secure those gains already made, as well as to plan for the future.

This Author

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, which studies the humanitarian and environmental impact of conflicts and military activities, on Twitter @detoxconflict, and is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London's Department of War Studies' Marjan Centre.