This article is written by a master student and reflects their individual perspectives and opinions. It does not constitute an official representation of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. The content provided here is for educational and informational purposes only, and readers should be aware that it does not necessarily align with the official position of the institute. Readers are encouraged to independently verify information and seek guidance from appropriate academic authorities when necessary. The authors bear full responsibility for the content presented in this blog and any potential consequences resulting from it.
Isabelle comes from Växjö in the southern part of Sweden and she has studied law at Lund University. She is currently in the second year of the International Human Rights Law Master’s programme. Isabelle is especially interested in the connection between Environmental Law and International Humanitarian Law, but also women’s rights and the human rights approach to poverty reduction.
On the 5th November 2001 the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/Res/56/4 which declared that the 6th November is the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Today marks the 22nd anniversary, but why is this day even important? The 6th November is important to recognize the environment as the silent victim of conflict, to recognize the connection between natural resources and conflict and to recognize the connection between climate change and conflict. By doing this the international community can easily face the challenges of conflict and the environment.
The silent victim of armed conflict
In war and armed conflict, the focus of the world media and the international community is understandably on the suffering of humans. However, the environment is then forgotten and in the words of the former United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, the environment should be recognized as a silent victim of armed conflict. Firstly, armed conflicts cause CO2 emissions because of the use of fossil fuels by military vehicles, by fires caused by warfare but also because of the displacement of refugees. Reports show that the Gulf War of 1991 amounted to two percent of the global CO2 emission that year and the first seven months of the war in Ukraine amounted to the same amount of all the CO2 emissions in the Netherlands during the same period. This is problematic in the face of climate change where there is a need to decrease emissions. Secondly, the environment is targeted as a part of warfare. This was done during the Vietnam War when The United States sprayed the forest in Vietnam with Agent Orange to deprive guerillas of food and concealment. Thirdly, the environment is affected as a byproduct of the fighting, for example when forests are set on fire because of explosions or when infrastructure is targeted resulting in debris that can be harmful to the environment.
Natural resources as a driver of conflict
Exploitation of natural resources is prevalent in conflict areas and works as a driver of conflict. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 40 percent of internal conflicts in the last 60 years have been connected to the exploitation of natural resources. Resources exploited can be anything from diamonds, timber, and charcoal to wildlife such as ivory and fisheries. There are several examples where exploitation has played a major role in sustaining the conflict such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo where illicit exploitation is estimated to be USD 1.25 billion annually and 10-30 percent of that amount goes to financing criminal groups. Another example is the Casamance conflict in Senegal where armed groups used logging of timber as a way of financing its operations. Moreover, conflicts where exploitation is a driver are twice as likely to relapse within five years of a peace agreement.
Climate change as an indirect driver of conflict.
Climate change is an ever-pressing issue and as mentioned above war and conflict contribute to it. However, climate change is also an indirect driver of conflict. Climate change negatively affects factors that can increase the likelihood of conflict such as food security and competition over natural resources, i.e. water. Furthermore, because of drought, flooding, and other environmental catastrophes caused by climate change people are forced to move to other regions or urban areas with the risk of increasing tensions in the new places. This has been seen in Darfur where people moved from resource-scarce areas to other parts of the region which created tensions between Arab and non-Arab groups.
What has and should be done?
To prevent conflict and to develop peace in conflict-prone areas actors must have the connection between the environment and conflicts in mind. The United Nations Environment Assembly has highlighted this by stating that healthy ecosystems and sustainably managed resources reduce the risk of armed conflict. The international community must also help states that are vulnerable to climate change to adapt and mitigate harms to prevent escalating tensions.
Furthermore, the environment must in itself be seen as worth protecting to prevent states from using the environment as a means of warfare. It can be questioned whether international humanitarian law is enough to prevent this. Article 35 and Article 55 of Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions prohibit warfare that causes widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment. However, the threshold to fulfil the requirements of widespread, long-term, and severe damage is set very high which makes it hard to establish a violation. On the other hand, on the national level there are some improvements i.e. that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in Colombia has recognized a territory as a victim of conflict.
The International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict is an important recognition of the connection between conflict and the environment. This should be an incentive to give the environment greater protection in conflicts, but also to work on healthy ecosystems and manage resources to prevent conflicts. The threshold to fulfil the requirement of widespread, long-term, and severe damage could be reconsidered to find a level which would make it possible to establish a violation in a feasible way.
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