Environmental damage during and after armed conflicts harms the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable people and populations, degrades sensitive ecosystems, and undermines the prospects for lasting peace. This has been clear in Iraq where the Islamic State’s attacks on oil infrastructure led to widespread contamination; in biodiverse Colombia, with its spiraling rates of deforestation and habitat loss; and in Afghanistan, where the legacy of decades of conflict-linked environmental degradation have left it acutely vulnerable to climate change. Environmental remediation and restoration in the aftermath of armed conflicts remains under-prioritized, if not entirely neglected.
On top of the above challenges, adherence to the applicable international legal rules of environmental peacebuilding remains poor.[i] For one, belligerent parties tend to push the observance of environment-related provisions to the background. The attendant lack of accountability after the cessation of hostilities only serves to reinforce such irresponsible and unlawful conduct. Moreover, the scope and the contours of related norms suffer from lack of clarity. Without a robust international mechanism tasked with the restoration of wartime environmental damage, responses remain fragmented and ineffective. To this end, we urgently need an international mechanism to keep track of the implementation of the law of environmental peacebuilding, which, in turn, may strengthen the prospects of an enduring peace where it is most needed.
What’s been done
The international community has undertaken various legal initiatives in its attempt to strengthen the normative landscape of environmental peacebuilding. The 1991 establishment of the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) by the United Nations Security Council to address reparation claims following the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait marked a watershed moment, as the UNCC was also endowed with the competence to adjudicate environmental claims.[ii] The UNCC, a subsidiary quasi-judicial organ of the UN Security Council, was established as a claims resolution facility to settle a large number of claims in a reasonable time. Even though the UNCC made significant contributions to ‘evidence, burdens and standards of proof, questions of causation, standards of reparation, the importance of allocating funds for assessment’,[iii] its achievements were unique, for the conditions that enabled its creation are unlikely to be recreated.
Turning to more recent times, a plethora of legal initiatives have been pursued by different international actors, which aim to clarify different aspects of the law of environmental peacebuilding. The growing momentum is aptly evidenced by the 2019 draft principles on the ‘Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts’ adopted, on first reading, by the UN International Law Commission,[iv] the 2019 Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure,[v] the 2020 updated International Committee of the Red Cross Guidelines,[vi] and the 2020 Harvard Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War.[vii]
All these initiatives draw from the wide spectrum of norms of international law applicable during and after armed conflicts which includes — but it is not limited to — international humanitarian law, human rights law and international environmental law. These different areas of international law constitute the different facets of the law of environmental peacebuilding which should be taken into account for long-term peace. Despite the increasing efforts of the international community, compliance with the applicable provisions in post-conflict settings remains poor. Accordingly, the proposed international monitoring mechanism carries the potential to influence the post-conflict environmental performance of the actors involved, serving at the same time as a valuable instrument of environmental peacebuilding.
These are important steps, but the field of environmental peacebuilding suffers from the lack of a clear and mutually recognized monitoring system for implementation. Although it is well-known that states are primarily responsible for implementation, it is often the case that civil society actors attempt to lure states into compliance.[viii] The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a UK-based NGO, has already undertaken a review of UK’s and Canada’s environmental conduct relating to armed conflicts with reference to the ILC’s draft principles.[ix]
The international community should create a solid monitoring international mechanism that will be assessing the environmental conduct of relevant stakeholders, such as states, international organizations, and non-state armed groups, pertaining to environmental peacebuilding. This implementation mechanism should ensure the widest possible participation of interested and affected stakeholders and should operate transparently. In addition, local actors should be better included in the process of monitoring the applicable law dealing with environmental peacebuilding. Local communities are the most affected by the lack of compliance with international norms. Interested actors could participate in monitoring the implementation of the applicable laws, exchanging information, and adopting recommendations for both States and non-State actors so as to prevent and remediate environmental damage in conflict-affected areas. Improved compliance with the applicable environmental peacebuilding law reduces the chances of a relapse into conflict and enhances the prospects for durable peace.
At this critical juncture for the future of environmental peacebuilding, the international community should build on the increasing momentum around environmental peacebuilding and create an independent mechanism monitoring the compliance of actors operating in conflict-affected settings with their commitments and best practices.
This article is a contribution to a compendium of 50 entries on the future of environmental peacebuilding, written by 150 authors in a collective effort to chart a future course of action. Environmental peacebuilding, climate security, environmental peace and security — these are all terms to articulate the relationship between natural resources and the lines between violent conflict and peace.
The collective project will be collated and launched on 2 February 2022 at the International Conference for Environmental Peacebuilding, online and in Geneva, Switzerland. It is meant to be a tool both of collective sensemaking and of influence for decision-makers.
[i] The broader field of international peacebuilding law, which is geared towards securing a sustainable peace comprises “the body of international law and principles that governs the international community, post-conflict countries, civil society and the private sector”, which “includes law governing peacemaking (negotiating and concluding a peace agreement), peace and security operations (including peacekeeping, sanctions, SSR [Security Sector Reform], DDR [Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration], and mine action and disposing of the other remnants of war), humanitarian assistance (including the return of refugees and displaced persons), delivery of basic services, livelihoods and food security, macroeconomic recovery, governance (including the rule of law and transitional justice), and cooperation’. Bruch C., Boulicault M., Talati S., and Jensen D. (2012) ‘International Law, Natural Resources and Post‐conflict Peacebuilding: From Rio to Rio+20 and Beyond.’ Review of European Community & International Environmental Law 21, 1: 55–6 [citations omitted]. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9388.2012.00746.x
[ii] UNSC. (1991) Resolution 687, United Nations Security Council: New York.
[iii] Merryl, L.W., (2017) ‘Victims of Environmental Harm During Conflict’ in Stahn, C., Easterday, J.S., and Iverson, J., Environmental Protection and Transitions from Conflict to Peace, Oxford Scholarship Online (http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198784630.003.0016)
[iv] ILC. (2019) Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts: Text and titles of the draft principles provisionally adopted by the Drafting Committee on first reading, United Nations International Law Commission: Geneva
[v] GWH. (2019) Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure, Geneva Water Hub: Geneva
[vi] ICRC. (2020) Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict, International Committee of the Red Cross: Geneva
[vii] IHRS and CEOBS. (2020) Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Conflict and Environment Observatory: Mytholmroyd
[viii] Hakala E. and Van der Vet F., (2021) “Protecting the environment during armed conflict: From principles to implementation”. Finnish Institute of International Affairs Briefing Paper 311.
[ix] CEOBS. (2019) The United Kingdom’s Practice on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts, Conflict and Environment Observatory: Mytholmroyd; CEOBS. (2021) Canada’s Practice on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts, Conflict and Environment Observatory: Mytholmroyd