The overarching consideration that the belligerent parties in armed conflicts should adhere to must be the need to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. This, however, is not the sole concern. In addition to taking into consideration the plight of civilians, belligerent parties will also have to take into account the environment. Environmental issues are linked to armed conflicts in a number of ways. For instance, Article 35(3) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention provides that “[I]t is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”. Likewise, Principle 26 of the Stockholm Declaration states that “[M]an and his environment must be spared the effects of nuclear weapons and all other means of mass destruction” and Principle 24 of the Rio Declaration provides that “[W]arfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary”. Thus, international law addresses the need to protect the environment in times of armed conflicts (see also this post by Dan Bodansky over on Opinio Juris). At the same time, the question of whether depletion of natural resources and the environment is a factor leading to armed conflict is becoming more and more prominent. This is particular the case in relation to climate change, scarcity of water and extraction of raw materials. In addition, some environmentalists are even arguing in favour of “ecological intervention”, supporting armed intervention, along the lines of the argument for humanitarian intervention, in the name of the environment. Thus, there are strong links between the environment and the waging of war.
However, one sometimes overlooked link is the need to care for sustainable utilisation of resources and environmental management in post-conflict situations. This area is the subject of a recently released report by the UN’s Environmental Programme (UNEP), available here (pdf.), titled “From Conflict to Peacebuilding – the Role of Natural Resources and the Environment”. In the Report, UNEP discusses the linkages between armed conflict, peace building and the environment. It could be argued that the main “role to play” for environmental considerations in times of armed conflict is exactly in these situations. When hostilities have ceased, there is a strong need to secure relative normality as quickly as possible in terms of providing basic resources for civilian populations, facilitating a stable agricultural and economic infrastructure by securing the delivery of clean water and other resources etc. all in order to secure the return to normality and alleviate the suffering of civilians. In this light, the Report deserves credit for addressing the link between peace building and the environment (the UN has over 100.000 personal serving in various peacekeeping operations across the world).
The Report makes a number of recommendations. Firstly, the Report recommends that the UN system needs to improve its capacity to deliver early warning and early action in countries that are vulnerable to conflicts over natural resources. This is rather uncontroversial and ideas of early warning seems to very much a “flavour of the day” – calls for early warning systems was also put forward in relation to attempts to address genocide by the US Genocide Prevention Task Force. Secondly, the Report recommends that oversight and protection of natural resources during armed conflicts is improved. Thus, the Report, inter alia, calls for new legal instruments protecting natural resources during armed conflicts. This latter recommendation, however, is likely to prove troublesome as the utilisation of natural resources strikes at the heart of state sovereignty and many states are likely to resist international regulation on this issue. In other words, it is doubtful that international consensus can be reached on this point. More interestingly, the Report calls for the taking into account of sharing of natural resources in the deal-making of peace agreements and indeed in the peacekeeping process. Moreover, the Report recommends that the UN’s peacekeeping operations become better at taking the environment and natural resources into account. The Report notes that often it is not until many years into an intervention that the issue of natural resource management receives attention. This is arguably the most important recommendation of the Report. Although it might seem rather obvious, it is paramount that the peacekeeping missions in place in various countries are aware and equipped to deal with the specific environmental conditions in each country. At the same time, it would appear that this recommendation would not be all that difficult to implement within the existing UN peacekeeping organisation. Finally, the Report recommends that the international community ought to help national authorities in post-conflict countries with better administrating extraction processes.
The UNEP’s report is interesting in that it addresses an extremely important issue. At the same time, it holds some valuable recommendations although some are more realistic and relevant than others. For readers with an interest in the links between the environment and armed conflict, it also holds a series of case studies highlighting the need to take a more integral approach in future peacekeeping operations across the globe.