If the UN system is failing to address the environmental dimensions of security, do we need to address the UN system itself?
Everyone recognises the importance of environmental mainstreaming. It’s a problem that is particularly acute for conflict and the environment, where the environment is rarely prioritised before, during or after conflicts. In turn this influences how we frame the issues we work on, and it also influences how we work, often content with modest progress from one project to the next. The barriers we face are shared, and systemic, which begs the question – do we need to change the system, together?
Cross-cutting or mainstream?
One of the more curious aspects of current debates on conflict and the environment is that “the environment” can simultaneously exist as both a cross-cutting issue, and as something that needs to be more effectively mainstreamed. A healthy and functioning environment is important for anyone who needs air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat or the natural resources necessary to sustain ecological and economic systems. Yet at times it seems nigh on impossible to communicate this rather fundamental principle – particularly in the face of humanitarian crises, and with them the urgency and immediacy of the responses necessary to protect human lives.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asked whether humanity had: “…fallen into a mesmerised state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?” While matters might not be quite that bleak for conflict and the environment, there is a sense that we are lacking a vision, one that could provide the framework to structure the policies that could drive the mainstreaming that most agree is needed.
Of frames and fragments
Speaking on the UN’s day on conflict and the environment last November, UN Environment head Erik Solheim argued that: “Environmental protection needs to take a more prominent role in our response to conflict.” It was a view echoed by the head of UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the then UN Secretary General. It also reflected the main message of UNEA-2’s consensus resolution on the Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict. Meanwhile, the new paradigm created by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has this year seen the new UN Secretary General António Guterres talk of synergies and holistic approaches and the need for: “…a global response that addresses the root causes of conflict, and integrates peace, sustainable development and human rights in a holistic way – from conception to execution.” The environment must be a part of this process.
We have argued previously that, while the SDGs encompass many themes of relevance to conflict and the environment – chemicals, climate, health, rights, ecosystems, illicit financial flows – the absence of a wider vision, and engagement from states and civil society on the environment and security during the negotiating process, means that the SDG progress indicators lack the specificity to capture these themes’ interactions with armed conflict. It seems likely that this would this have been different if the environment – like arms transfers, human rights and gender – had been more effectively mainstreamed in peace and security debates prior to the development of the SDGs.
What we understand as conflict and the environment is a vast topic. This has inevitably led to its fragmentation, with many different actors chipping away at its constituent parts. However because of Carson’s “mesmerised state” and the low priority afforded to the environment in peace and security, have we collectively enhanced that fragmentation by fitting our policy and advocacy frames to reflect the prevailing interests of states and donors, or of those we seek to persuade? Naturally there is a balance to be struck but have we done the environment a disservice by taking this process too far?
Climate change as a security issue
Take climate change, vigorous efforts to frame climate change as a matter of state security have helped to create and sustain an orthodox view that has increasingly been the subject of debates at the UN Security Council (UNSC). While the wisdom and merits of skewing the frame away from human security towards state security have been questioned, the need to frame it in this way was inevitably a response to the perception of the environment as a low priority issue for governments generally, and for peace and security in particular.
As with most years since 2007, 2017 will see efforts to raise climate change at the UNSC. In January, SIPRI proposed fresh recommendations for progress on the topic in the current session, which are intended to: “…strengthen the UNSC institution itself by ensuring that its operations to build peace ‘do no harm’ and are conflict sensitive to the realities of climate exacerbated resource scarcities.” The recommendations focus on two main themes, to: “…create the capacity inside the UN system to craft the information gathering structures and information channels needed for climate risk-informed decision making…” and to “…locate an institutional home for climate security issues, which would foster coordination and provide support across the UN system.”
There is of course no doubting the seriousness and importance of climate change, or the principle that natural resources can trigger or sustain conflicts; however, does focusing only on those resources affected by climate change risk ignoring the role of say, mineral resources in conflict prevention efforts? Similarly, while there is clearly a need for more capacity for UN coordination on the environment across the cycle of conflicts, a focus only on security threats exacerbated by climate change risks side-lining numerous other environmental issues that may play an important role before, during and after conflicts. One example of how such environmental cooperation can be achieved on the regional scale is the now somewhat diminished ENVSEC initiative.
Writing on efforts to mainstream the environment into recovery project planning in Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur, the UNDP’s George Bouma observed that:
“…basic environmental management requirements are poorly integrated into donor and UN projects, despite higher-level policy directives and commitments to sustainability. Myriad recovery projects have been implemented in which the majority of proponents had little or no exposure to environmental training or the sustainable management of natural resources. Furthermore, even when potential environmental impacts of projects and sectors were identified by third parties and technical assistance was offered to mitigate impacts, few proponents changed their project design.”
Does this suggest that we are getting ahead of ourselves, should we really be focusing on specific climate change risks if the international community is not even getting the environmental basics right first?
The 2015 Environmental Emergencies Forum (EEF) – a biennial event hosted by UNOCHA and UNEP’s Joint Environment Unit, the next is tentatively scheduled for this September – began with a question: were attendees humanitarians or environmentalists? Our delegation cautiously raised our hands for both – we were after all researching and promoting a framing that merged environmental and public health concerns. At the time it seemed an odd question to us; we environmentalists are used to thinking in terms of systems, in terms of the interconnectedness of things, why wouldn’t humans be a part of that, how could anybody not see it that way? Our naivety seems amusing now but only because it underscores the very real problem we and others have faced in engaging individuals and organisations on “the environment”.
Much of the focus of the 2015 EEF was on efforts to mainstream the environment in humanitarian response, and this is the continuing mission of the Environment and Humanitarian Action (EHA) Network. Their work has faced a number of hurdles, not least the unfair perception that integrating environmental assessments slows down urgent responses – in spite of the potential for poorly planned programmes to exacerbate human suffering by causing avoidable environmental degradation. In recent years, a suite of environmental tools and best practice has been developed by members of the Network, for both conflicts and natural disasters, but ensuring that they are properly implemented remains a challenge, as does the chronic lack of donor funding for such programmes.
The assumption that humanitarians might be turned into environmentalists has been mirrored by our Project’s experiences with the mine action community, whose work shares a similar degree of urgency and immediacy. With a few notable exceptions, persuading organisations of the importance of the environment has been challenging, in part because of the historical decoupling of the environment from mine action, and the ongoing power of the humanitarian framing around mines that was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nevertheless, in both fields there are organisations and individuals who are engaged and interested but at present they are comparatively few in number.
Peacekeepers, humanitarians, mine action organisations – all their activities may have a cumulative environmental footprint, yet at present most view the environment as a secondary or tertiary concern. As such, making the best use of the limited work done by those individuals or organisations who are engaged has increasingly become the focus of the EHA Network and its members, for example in its recently launched coordination initiative. While this and other initiatives are welcome and necessary, they could also be viewed as highlighting the absence of an overarching narrative, a narrative that could amplify and secure environmental mainstreaming by encouraging more systematic engagement on the environment from governments and donors, right through to the programmes and projects on the ground.
The environment, peace and security
The multiplicity of initiatives and framings associated with conflict and the environment stems in part from the broad scope of the topic, and in part from the low prioritisation afforded to the environment in peace and security – which contorts our framings, and our ambitions, to suit the prevailing security discourse. There are nevertheless many positive things happening across a range of fields, but are these disparate approaches sufficient to match both the scale of the problem, and the stated ambition of Solheim and others, as expressed last November 6? In short, a structural reassessment of conflict and the environment.
Such a reassessment would need a vehicle, one that would support ongoing implementation activities and entry points for states, international organisations and civil society, on both the national and international levels. Fortunately there is another cross-cutting issue that could perhaps provide a possible model: UNSC resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. While there are numerous critiques of the resolution’s effectiveness, in particularly that its implementation is voluntary, it has unarguably had a significant impact on how gender issues are perceived, prioritised and integrated into security issues, and at both the national and international levels. It has also facilitated and sustained the engagement of a range of stakeholders.
Could a UNSC resolution on “the environment, peace and security” bring together all the disparate frames currently being promoted, be they on climate, natural resources, water, humanitarian response, conservation or pollution? There are common threads running through all of them – low environmental prioritisation, limited structural capacity, minimal or fleeting state and donor attention and their impacts on state, human and ecological security.
For a sense of the potential scope of such a resolution, the following excerpt is from a Dutch government review of the effectiveness of 1325 published in 2015 – 15 years after the resolution was adopted, where the word “women” has been replaced by “the environment”:
“UNSCR 1325 remains essential for putting [the environment] on the global peace and security agenda. The resolution recognises that [the environment is] not only [a] victim that needs protection but that [it is] also important in conflict prevention and resolution, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response as well as in post-conflict reconstruction.”
Achieving such a resolution would be a major undertaking, and it would require a high degree of collaboration between states, civil society and international organisations. It would also require a long-term political commitment from a group of states, with thought needed on how it could relate to the ongoing work of the International Law Commission. Is it politically unrealistic? It may seem so, but the same might have been said of the work of the Commission, and last year’s UNEA-2 resolution.
Naturally, such an enterprise would be of limited use without the means of ensuring its effective implementation, implementation that leads to genuine structural change internationally, and clear benefits on the ground. On that, the successes and failures in implementing 1325 and other keynote UNSC resolutions would need to be studied for guidance.
It is of course easy to propose ambitious objectives – it’s quite another thing to achieve them. However, if all our framings and approaches are facing similar systemic barriers, is it better to tackle these barriers one project or programme at a time, or does it make more sense to collectively address the system itself?
Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project @detoxconflict