Marking the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict on November 6, the head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Inger Andersen called for greater action to protect natural resources and the environment during wartime, describing the environment as a continuing “silent victim” of armed conflict.
Andersen stated that environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent conflict. “However, the exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses can be implicated in all phases of the conflict cycle, from contributing to the outbreak and perpetuation of violence to undermining prospects for peace”.
“Access and flow of water, land degradation, floods and pollution, in addition to competition over extractive resources, can directly exacerbate tensions and lead to eruption of conflicts, as is the case for resource depletion issues such as deforestation, soil erosion and desertification".
During the Vietnam War public concern raged over the use of Agent Orange that led to widespread deforestation and soil and water contamination. As a result, two international legal instruments were created: the Environmental Modification Convention in 1976 and, one year later, an amendment to the Geneva Conventions. Together these protocols contribute to the regulation in the conduct of war
Demands to strengthen controls occurred after the 1991 Kuwait war when the intentional destruction of oil wells caused extensive pollution. Devastation during conflict continues. For example, UNEP cites the bombing of dozens of industrial sites in the 1999 Kosovo conflict that resulted in toxic chemical contamination.
More recently, ISIL militants have set oil wells on fire in Iraq, triggering the release of what UNEP described as a “toxic mix” of gases and other compounds into the air.
Andersen noted that in recent decades there have been fundamental changes in how the international community understands challenges to peace and security. The rise in non-state actors means that security is not always viewed in terms of conventional military threats.
“This evolving security landscape requires a shift in the way the international community engages in conflict management”, she said.
“From conflict prevention and early warning to peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, the potential role of natural resources and the environment must be taken into consideration at the onset.”
In assessing the environmental impacts of modern warfare, Andersen indicated that there are gaps and weaknesses in international laws that protect the environment. “However, if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to act with greater urgency and coherence to reduce the threats armed conflicts pose to our environment and ultimately our health and livelihoods”, she said, calling for renewed ambition for protection of the environment.