On November 5, 2001, the UN General Assembly declared November 6 as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.
In making this decision, the organization took into account that the damage caused to the environment during military conflicts long after their end affects the state of ecosystems and natural resources and often extends beyond national territories and the period of life of one generation. The General Assembly also referred to the UN Millennium Declaration, which stressed the need to take measures to protect the common environment.
The International Day was established to draw attention to the environmental consequences of war and the importance of avoiding the senseless damage to ecosystems in pursuit of military goals.
Though 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).
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. It reaffirmed its strong commitment to fully implementing the Sustainable Development Goals listed in General Assembly resolution 70/1, entitled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.
UN has identified 28 principles to reduce the impact of war on the environment.
Environmental damage is an invisible aspect of any armed conflict. But this does not mean that it is less critical than harm to people and their material environment. The environment suffers and is silent, so people must speak for it.
In July 2019, the UN Commission on International Law (ILC) identified a draft of 28 legal principles to strengthen environmental protection before, during, and after an armed conflict. The IMC began working on “Protecting the Environment from Armed Conflict” in 2011. During this time, it has already adopted such principles, so only 8 of them are new.
The principles cover various issues, from resettlement to looting of natural resources, but do not impose any liability for environmental damage on non-state armed groups. They also say that the damage to the environment must be compensated if caused by an international act in connection with an armed conflict. However, it was decided to discuss harmonizing the terms “environment” and “natural environment” in the second reading of the draft principles.
The text of the draft principles consists of 5 parts:
- principles of general application;
- principles applicable in armed conflicts;
- principles applicable in situations of occupation;
- principles applicable after armed conflicts.
The new principles take into account more aspects of the environment than before. In particular:
Draft Principle (PP) 12 states that “In cases not provided for in international agreements, the environment still remains under the protection and authority of the principles of international law arising from established customs, the principles of humanity and the dictates of public consciousness”;
Paragraph 19 states that “In accordance with their international obligations, States shall not engage in military or any other hostile use of methods of environmental modification with long-term, serious and pervasive consequences as a means of destroying, damaging or harming any other the state ”;
Paragraph 26 was added to restore the environment after armed conflict: “If, as a result of an armed conflict, the source of the environmental damage is not identified or compensation is not available, States are encouraged to take appropriate measures to ensure that the damage does not remain unrepaired. They may also consider setting up special compensation funds or providing other forms of assistance. ”
You can find the complete draft of the principles at UN site.
Gaps that remain
Although there have been proposals to prosecute criminals who cause environmental damage, the UN ILC has avoided the question of the responsibility of non-state armed groups. The issue of compensation for environmental damage by non-state armed groups and their leaders was also rejected. This problem remains relevant, given current trends with hybrid wars and internal conflicts.
Also, despite the proposal to consider the impact of the use of specific weapons on the environment, the ILC decided that there was no need to create a draft principle on biological and chemical weapons. The impact of nuclear weapons was also not discussed.
“If we are to achieve the SDGs, we need to act boldly and urgently to reduce the risks that environmental degradation and climate change present for conflict and commit to protecting our planet from the debilitating effects of war,” said the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres.
- Resolution A/RES/56/4 declaring the Day
- Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict (UNEP/EA.2/Res.15)
- UN Resolution on Environmental Sustainability in Mali Peacekeeping Operations [S/RES/2100 (2013)]
- Environment and Security: a Global Agenda for UNEP [UNEP/GC.23/INF/21]
- Publications on Environmental Peacebuilding
- Policy Briefs
- Women and Natural Resources: Unlocking the Peacebuilding Potential
- Greening the Blue Helmets
- Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict: An Inventory and Analysis of International Law
- From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment
You may check our author’s column about the environmental consequences of war here.