UN Security Council discusses the protection of the environment during armed conflict

Image: On November 7th, the UN Security Council discussed the protection of the environment during armed conflicts for the first time – a sign of growing international interest in the environmental

December 6, 2018

To highlight the devastating impact of armed conflict on the environment, Kuwait convened an Arria-formula meeting on the 7th of November on the ‘Protection of the Environment During Armed Conflict.’ The meeting, co-sponsored by the German Mission to the United Nations, was timed to coincide with the UN’s annual International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict – #EnvConflictDay. The full debate can be watched online here. PAX’s Babette Schenkels and Wim Zwijnenburg review the debate.

Environmental security in the Security Council

Kuwait has firsthand experience of how environmental damage can have long-lasting consequences for the environment. Their effort to boost discussion within the UN Security Council (UNSC) on environmental protection during conflicts is timely, as meaningful progress to address the consequences of conflicts on ecosystems and human health and livelihoods is urgently needed. Past discussions in the UNSC have already addressed other aspects of environmental security, for example looking at natural resources and the root causes of conflicts, and the linkages between climate change and security. Discussions have also focused on the role of water resources and conflict, which was addressed by an Arria-formula meeting this October.

Arria-formula meetings are informal gatherings that allow UNSC members to discuss topics of interest or relevance to the Council but which may not yet be on its formal agenda. They are also intended to allow the input of the representatives of governments and international organisations, as well as experts from civil society.

The meeting raised important questions around how the UNSC should address the environment across the cycle of conflicts. It was notable that many interventions by states addressed the environment in conflict prevention and in peacebuilding, as well as as a victim during conflicts. And, as many of the changes that are needed in the international security architecture to address the environment before, during and after conflicts would be applicable to climate risks, water conflicts or wartime damage, it suggested that a more comprehensive approach could be more appropriate than the current situation of dealing with these issues separately at the UNSC. However, it remains to be seen whether those states and civil society actors pursuing independent UNSC initiatives on climate, resources or water could be persuaded to instead focus more broadly and collectively on environmental security.

State views during the debate

The meeting began with two interventions from non-governmental panelists. Carl Bruch, Director of International Programs at the Environmental Law Institute and co-founder of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, provided context on the important role of the environment throughout the cycle of conflicts. A view echoed by Satya Tripathi, head of the New York Office of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). They were followed by interventions from current members of the Security Council.

Kuwait’s representative Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi, who chaired the meeting, stated that Kuwait’s initiative to convene it came from the country’s first-hand experience of environmental damage caused by armed conflict. Al-Otaibi referred to the seven-month occupation of Kuwait in February 1991, in which Iraqi forces set more than 700 oil wells on fire: “…causing one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the 20th century.” The case of Kuwait, in which “the environment was exploited as a weapon of war” is an example of the nexus between the environment and armed conflict, Al-Otaibi confirmed. Moreover, he pointed out the importance of the 6th of November as an annual reminder of the UN’s commitment to the environment as a key pillar of peace, sustainability and development. The representative stressed Kuwait’s keenness on protecting the environment in conflict areas in cooperation with Council members and peacekeeping missions, and called upon all Members to take responsibility for doing so.

The statement by Ambassador Schulz of Germany included three remarks on the protection of environment in relation to armed conflicts. In his first remark on the role of natural resources as a root cause of conflict, the Ambassador stressed the importance of the transparent and accountable management of oil, gas and minerals. Secondly, the Ambassador mentioned the “…triple nexus of climate change, threats to the environment and its overall effect on security and conflicts” and the need to address this. He also called for “…effective accountability in conflicts for violations of all existing legal obligations for the protections of the environment”, referring to the IHL obligations of distinction, military necessity and precautions in attack, as well as the 1992 UNGA resolution on the Protection of the environment in times of armed conflict. To conclude, Germany emphasised the importance of the restoration of sustainable livelihoods in post-conflict situations, praising UNEP’s environmental assessments and recovery work in post-conflict areas.

Following Germany, the Netherlands highlighted three points in their statement that should be taken into consideration when discussing the protection of the environment in armed conflict. First, the role of the Security Council in ensuring compliance with international norms on environmental protection in armed conflict. Second, the environmental impact of peacekeeping operations, and third, enhancing conflict prevention through joint risk assessments and analysis on environmental factors and changes. The Netherlands also reminded states to implement the UN Environment Assembly’s 2016 and 2017 resolutions on the protection of the environment in areas affected by conflicts and on conflict pollution.

Sweden stated that “rapid measures should be taken” as armed conflicts are creating long term consequences for the environment and for livelihoods, both now and for future generations. They also called for the creation of effective legislative measures to protect the environment before, during and after armed conflicts. Furthermore, stressing the need for applying a gender perspective in this discussion, as: “…women are often the primary managers and users [of natural resources] in conflict-affected contexts”. They also highlighted the relevance of the disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to the discussion, and the inclusion of environmental standards in military manuals, welcoming the current work of the ICRC in updating their guidelines, and the work of the International Law Commission (ILC) on the Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts (PERAC). Sweden also highlighted the initiatives taken by its armed forces to develop policies on how to handle environmental issues on peacekeeping missions, including measures to minimise their environmental footprint.

Poland noted that the debate was “highly timely and extremely important”, as too often the environment was a “silent casualty” of armed conflict. Poland believed that all parties involved in a conflict must respect and protect the environment, and work together to ensure this, recalling the issues around the destruction of  water infrastructure, deforestation, soil contamination and the killing of wildlife, and the long-term impact on human health, livelihoods and security. Additionally, they argued that the existing international legal principles on the protection of the environment in armed conflict could be “addressed in a more comprehensive manner”, something in which the UNSC and General Assembly could play an important role. They concluded by underlining that the environment must not be used as a weapon, and that all parties to an armed conflict must take all measures to avoid or minimise environmental damage, as well as ensuring the protection of civilians, and noted the important role of the environment in UN peacekeeping operations.

In their contribution, France stated that the exchange of information, the post-conflict evaluation of environmental damage and the creation of environmentally protected areas can strengthen the capacities of the international community to protect the environment in the context of armed conflicts; and that legal issues around accountability and impunity for environmental damage caused by conflicts should be part of this debate. They voiced concern over the role of natural resources in contributing to conflicts, and linked the debate with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, calling on the Secretary General to present an annual overview of worldwide threats to peace and security resulting from climate change. Lastly, she warned of the potential environmental impacts of UN peacekeeping operations.

Not all agreed with the UNSC as a venue in which to discuss the topic. Russia pointed out that discussions on the environment and security should take place in specialised international fora such as the UN Environment Assembly, though noting that UNEP has no role in defining, preventing or solving conflicts. Russia stated that as “the absolute priority should be given to the protection of civilians” the environment was not a priority. They continued by mentioning that military actions by the Western coalition in Libya, Yugoslavia and Syria have resulted in the destruction and pollution of the environment in these areas, in particular noting the use of depleted uranium munitions, and the destruction of oil industries in Libya, conveniently neglecting their own targeting of the oil industry in Syria.

Peru noted that their country was “deeply alarmed on the impact of armed conflict on the environment”, linking this with human vulnerability, and emphasised the importance of an effective and coherent response by the international community to the issue. They saw international law as a starting point for addressing these issues and called up on all states to strengthen multilateralism and cooperation, to conserve the environment, reduce human vulnerability and to ensure the sustainable management of natural resources. Peru saw the need for a larger role of the UNSC in preventing and minimising the impact of conflict on ecosystems and natural resources, and an important role for multilateralism in achieving this goal.

Kazakhstan noted the urgent need for strengthening environmental protection before, during and in the aftermath of war, as there could be “no durable peace without sustainable development.” Their representative mentioned the implementation of the Paris agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals as “priorities of the domestic and foreign policy of Kazakhstan”. Furthermore, they stated that the existing legal framework contains useful provisions, but that a lack of implementation limits effective measures to deal with the environmental damage caused by armed conflicts, pointing out the instrumental role that the Security Council could play role in this regard.

Equatorial Guinea emphasised the importance of states adopting: “…adequate legislative measures aimed at protecting and preserving the environment.” They also called upon all states to ratify the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and both promote awareness-raising and educational efforts through civil society on environmental protection. They also encouraged states to join the Basel Convention, Kyoto Protocol and Biodiversity Convention. Additionally, they noted that crimes against the environment in situations of armed conflict, such as deforestation, polluted soils and water sources should be considered as “crimes against humanity” and the perpetrators held accountable by the UNSC and international and national legislation.

Bolivia noted that climate change can result in the loss of biodiversity, fuel clashes and can endanger food and water security, and increase climate migration. Meanwhile damage to the environment in wars affects the most vulnerable populations, such as displaced persons, women and children. They argued that this can lead to a domino-effect on the human rights related to the environment, which in turn has an impact on peace and security, and that a current lack of effective legal measures allows states to harm the environment in situations of armed conflict. Moreover, they drew attention to the link between military expenditure by states and environmental damage due to conflicts over access to natural resources. In this regard, Bolivia called upon developed countries to tackle this wide set of challenges collectively, through cooperation on climate change and the conflict-environment nexus, and to defend multilateralism through abiding by and ratifying international agreements.

The United Kingdom focused on three points on the environment and armed conflict, stressing the need for: the integration of environmental issues related to conflict in the UN’s reporting and conflict analysis; greater awareness of the environmental impact of UN peacekeeping operations; and the need for states to abide by the relevant existing international law regarding the protection of environment in situations of armed conflict. They welcomed the ILC’s PERAC study, although would rather see more focus on the implementation of existing law, instead of seeking new provisions in this area.

Ethiopia, which is on the receiving end of environmental stress caused by climate change, expressed its belief that: “…today’s discussion will enable us to understand how natural resources and the environment can be better protected during armed conflict,” by examining the status of the existing legal framework. They affirmed the primary responsibility of the UN General Assembly and ECOSOC, and called for strengthening of the existing international law protecting the environment in conflict.

China addressed four points in its statement on the environment in relation to armed conflict. They called upon all states to cooperate internationally on the environment and resources, and to assist developing countries and enhance collaboration in order to achieve global sustainable development. They called for respect for the existing international agreements regarding the environment and natural resources, the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and help for developing countries with capacity building. And finally for the establishment of a new concept of security that is comprehensive, collective, cooperative and sustainable, and which addresses all security risks relating to the environment, including food insecurity, scarcity risks, humanitarian crises and mass migration.

Côte d’Ivore voiced strong concern about the role that natural resources play in relation to conflict, yet also noted the difficulties in ensuring compliance with legal protection of the environment due to general insecurity in conflict areas. They also underlined the role of non-state actors in this regard, who are not trained in the customs of war. In this regard, its representative noted that the Security Council could strengthen its work through the sanctions committee on this topic by adding environmental protection as an extra measure, and encourage more work on the environment in peacekeeping operations.

South Africa highlighted the role of natural resources as the root cause of conflicts, stating that: “…there will never be development without peace and a safe environment.” In addition, they called for the ILC to “consider the existing norms in the international law of armed conflict” and to “investigate the progressive development of the law where gaps exist”, as well as for the implementation of environmental policies for all UN peacekeeping missions.

Finally, in their statement, Belgium explicitly mentioned the long-term effects that conflict can have on the environment, referring to their first-hand experience of environmental damage from WWI. In relation to the conflict-environment nexus, Belgium called upon all UN member states to strengthen international legislation protecting the environment (especially in non-international armed conflicts); to pay consistent attention and conduct preventive analysis on this issue; and include environmental strategies in the UN’s own work, such as in peacekeeping missions.

What should the UNSC do next on the protection of the environment in armed conflict?

The acceptance by states of the environmental dimensions of peace and security is testament to how far the topic has come during the last decade, and a sign of growing momentum for progress on environmental security. In their statements, states noted the role of natural resources and environmental stressors in contributing to conflicts. They acknowledged the often long-term environmental damage that conflicts cause, and its consequences for human rights, health, livelihoods and sustainable development – as well as its gendered impacts.

There was also widespread acceptance of the UN’s role in responding to environmental security risks, not just through greater attention to the environment in peacekeeping operations, but also through systemic changes to its monitoring and reporting structures for conflict prevention. It was also promising to hear from states of the need for improved environmental assessments of conflict, including the identification, monitoring and remediation of damage. This would be imperative for understanding the mosaic of environmental issues born from or leading to conflicts, and a gateway to an effective international mechanism addressing these linkages

That so many states recognised the importance of the international law protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts was particularly welcome, as was the acknowledgement of the need to both enhance the legal framework and strengthen compliance mechanisms. The work being undertaken by the International Law Commission, states existing obligations under Sustainable Development Goals, and the work undertaken in the UN Environment Assembly were also viewed as important.

As noted in the introduction, most contributors to the debate recognised the linkages between the different environmental dimensions of peace and security, yet UNSC debates to date have tended to deal with environmental issues like resources, climate and water in isolation. But if the tools available to the UNSC are broadly applicable irrespective of the issue, does this warrant a more comprehensive approach? And if so, what could that look like?

A comprehensive approach on environmental security that addressed the entire lifecycle of conflicts could, inter alia, encapsulate the security implications of the causes of environmental change, such as climate, and the environmental drivers of conflict and their use as a tool for peacebuilding. Next, it would need to also emphasise the misuse or use of natural resources, tackling loss of bio-diversity, use of water resources, land-use and change, and the environmental and humanitarian consequences of conflicts themselves, and the need for a strong environmental dimension in the reconstruction phase. This could then develop an overarching security policy framework for analysis, recovery and response, which addresses the impacts on livelihoods and well-being, and damage to biodiversity and ecosystems.

The benefit would be a multi-dimensional view on environmental security issues, and a more efficient and effective way of working that, instead of tackling one environmental security issue at a time, works through a multifaceted environmental lens. Critically, it would also acknowledge and reflect the linkages between environmental issues. Past work conducted by the UNSC on various topics has demonstrated that the Security Council has the ability to create meaningful impacts on the ground. Therefore, such a pivotal environmental security approach should be ambitious, robust and driven by the knowledge that the clock is ticking.


Babette Schenkels is a graduate student Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and intern with PAX’s  Humanitarian Disarmament Program; Wim Zwijnenburg is a Project Leader on Humanitarian Disarmament with PAX. The authors would like to thank Alice Beck for her review of the report.

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