In the 20 years since #EnvConflictDay was established, we’ve come a long way – we should take a day to reflect on that.
November 6th is the UN’s day recognising the environmental impact of war. While it’s an important opportunity to draw attention to the scale of devastation that is wrought, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on how much progress we have collectively made in two decades of mainstreaming the environment in war and peace.
The UN General Assembly declared November 6th the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict in 2001. This was before hashtags made #EnvConflictDay less of a mouthful, and much else has changed since then. Perhaps the most profound change is that we now have a far greater understanding of how the environment is affected by war and, increasingly, how it may contribute to instability, and be impacted by peace.
One unfortunate reason for this is that there have been many more examples of conflicts affecting people and ecosystems. Another is that there have been dedicated efforts to assess and understand these relationships. Sometimes this is straightforward – a decision is taken to bomb an oil refinery for perceived military benefit, polluting the land and restricting fuel supplies. And sometimes this is more complex – to what extent do people turn to local forests when they don’t have access to fuel for heating or transportation?
The UN Environment Programme undisputedly led efforts to assess and understand those relationships during #EnvConflictDay’s first decade. Since then they have been joined by many others, all of whom have dedicated themselves to this topic within their mandates and spheres of influence. This #EnvConflictDay post is dedicated to them, and to everyone promoting this agenda 365 days a year.
A mainstreaming community
We should start with recognising those individuals and organisations working to protect the environment on the ground in areas affected by armed conflicts. The idea that conflicts somehow stop people caring about protecting where they live, and what they depend on, has been shown to be nonsense. Instead, witnessing degradation and experiencing loss first-hand can drive and sustain grassroots organising. Thanks to social media and online tools, it is becoming easier than ever for those directly experiencing the environmental impact of conflicts to gather and share data internationally. They need and deserve our support.
And these organisations are finding more people to work with them. Whether it’s addressing pollution and damage, unsustainable resource extraction, or indigenous and land rights, the many scholars and practitioners working under the banner of environmental peacebuilding are mainstreaming the relationship between the environment, peace and security on the ground, and in the pages of academic journals.
These relationships are also increasingly being taught to a new generation of students, who now have access to a rich and ever-expanding knowledge base of case studies, research and practice. Moreover, they are coming to these issues already aware and sensitised thanks to the work of the many journalists worldwide who have committed to gathering and telling these stories.
Environmental mainstreaming is also challenging the tools of war. Organisations are using environmental data and principles to articulate the linked ecological and humanitarian impact of weapons and military practices. This has now expanded to address how the legacy of particular weapons is dealt with, to decisions over how and where particular types of weapons are used, or even if they are used at all.
Communicating why environmental protection is a humanitarian priority is also providing new arguments and audiences. Civilian-centred advocacy opens up lines of debate under international humanitarian law and human rights law, and many organisations are using that as an opportunity to foreground the need to strengthen environmental protection. Connections are also being made between the legal protection for the environment in conflict, and the role of functioning ecosystems in reducing the vulnerability of communities to climate change.
Once we could only look to international humanitarian law’s environmental provisions as we sought to argue for greater protection. Thanks to the progressive scholarship and advocacy of experts in a wide range of legal fields, not only have efforts been made to clarify international humanitarian law rules, but the community is now close to formulating a suite of principles and rules that address legal protection right across the cycle of conflicts.
The environment has also taken root across the sectors and institutions that are part of the international peace and security architecture. In cooperation with the UN, humanitarian and peacebuilding organisations are bringing in the environmental expertise they need to take stock of the environmental implications of their activities, and the potential of the environment to protect and support those they assist. Military environmental mainstreaming is no longer restricted to multilateral peacekeeping operations. Individuals within militaries are advocating change, often in the face of considerable institutional resistance.
These initiatives are being facilitated by the conversations that are taking place across the UN, where civil society and progressive governments are fighting to communicate the relationships between the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises and our collective security. In this they are guided by the growing environmental awareness and expectations of our societies. They are also being powered by the governmental and institutional donors that are recognising the need for research and advocacy in these fields, and joining the dots between the environment, peace and security.
Take a look around
These few paragraphs encompass the work of thousands of individuals, and the mainstreaming agenda that we have all promoted has come a long way since hashtags became a thing. The work is very far from complete. Conflicts around the world continue to devastate ecosystems and lives, the environment remains under-prioritised in policy making and response, and to some its protection is still viewed as a luxury, rather than a necessity. But there is no escaping the breadth of the movement that has been created, its appetite for change, nor its momentum.
We have no room for complacency. The environmental challenges society faces are huge, and many of the world’s conflicts seem as intractable as ever. Nevertheless, perhaps we can afford to use this #EnvConflictDay to step back, look around, and take stock of the landscape we have collectively created, before we get back to our next 364 day’s work.
Doug Weir is CEOBS Research and Policy Director. CEOBS’ #EnvConflictDay focus this year is its work on the military contribution to climate change, and its new collaborative project The Military Emissions Gap will be launched on Nov 9 at COP26 in Glasgow.