International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict

By Keith Best

As the UN website tells us, although humanity has always counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, the environment has often remained the unpublicized victim of war. Water wells have been polluted, crops torched, forests cut down, soils poisoned, and animals killed to gain military advantage.

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

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

On 5 November 2001 the UN General Assembly declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict (A/RES/56/4), hence this blog.

On 27 May 2016, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted resolution UNEP/EA.2/Res.15, which recognized the role of healthy ecosystems and sustainably managed resources in reducing the risk of armed conflict, and reaffirmed its strong commitment to the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals listed in General Assembly resolution 70/1, entitled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.


EU-UN Partnership on Land and Natural Resource Conflicts

Six United Nations agencies and departments (UNEP, UNDP, UN HABITAT, PBSO, DPA and DESA), coordinated by the UN Framework Team for Preventive Action, have partnered with the European Union (EU) to help countries identify, prevent and transform tensions over natural resource as part of conflict prevention and peacebuilding programmes.

Global Research Programme on Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Natural Resources

The Environmental Law Institute (ELI), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Universities of Tokyo and McGill initiated a global research programme to collect lessons learned and good practices on managing natural resources during post-conflict peacebuilding. This four-year research project has yielded more than 150 peer-reviewed case studies by over 230 scholars, practitioners and decision-makers from 55 countries. This represents the most significant collection to date of experiences, analyses and lessons in managing natural resources to support post-conflict peacebuilding.

UN Partnership on Women and Natural Resources in Peacebuilding Settings

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equity and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) have established a partnership to collaborate on improving the understanding of the complex relationship between women and natural resources in conflict-affected settings, and make the case for pursuing gender equality, women’s empowerment and sustainable natural resource management together in support of peacebuilding. The first outcome of the collaboration is a joint policy report released on 6 November 2013.

This is not new

It has been maintained by many authors that future wars will be fought over water rights but as I write we see the weaponisation in Ukraine of other natural resources: the threat by Putin to destroy a dam that would wreak devastation on the countryside, the targeting of energy resources so as to deny heat and light to a population and a country’s industry (Western Europe is now having to re-assess its whole energy supply patterns both in terms of sources of supply and the nature of energy such as oil and gas). This is nothing new: the North Africa campaign in the Second World War was all about access to the oilfields of the Middle East which could determine the victor; the Ardennes offensive failed ultimately because Hitler’s tanks ran out of fuel andhis disastrous Operation Barbarossa against Russia was not just to negate a powerful neighbour (and former ally) but also a drive to the oilfields of the Caucasus and beyond. Putin’s resumed blockade of necessary vital food supplies of grain, sunflower oil and fertilizer from Ukraine, on which large parts of Africa and other countries rely, is a further example of how war is directed at disrupting economies and not just military victories. Proof, if ever needed, that war is now waged against civilians as well as soldiers. So called “scorched-earth” campaigns were not invented in the 20th Century but are aeons old. The devastation and denial of agricultural land through chemical agents such as Agent Orange in Vietnam and Sherman’s march to the sea which destroyed not just military targets but industry, infrastructure, and civilian property as well, disrupting the Confederacy’s economy and transportation networks which debilitated the Confederacy and helped lead to its eventual surrender, are further examples. Even under Roman rule Tacitus the historian attributes to Calgacus, a chieftain of the Caledonian Confederacy in the AD 80s, the cry that “they make a desert and call it peace.”

The way forward

So, it is timely and appropriate that we should consider the impact of war on our environment: some destruction can be remedied and land sanitised to become productive again but other devastation cannot. The detonation of a nuclear or “dirty” bomb will leave a legacy of lasting damage not just to human beings but to flora and fauna as well as the wider environment. Yet condemnation of this effect of armed conflict is not enough and is likely always to be superseded by concerns of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and gross abuses of human rights. Perhaps it will only become a significant concern when we have an international environmental court which can decide issues of responsibility between states for the devastation they cause to their neighbours and can adjudicate on compensation as well as the necessary corollary of adding the crime of ecocide to the panoply of justiciable crimes by the International Criminal Court thereby holding individuals responsible.