Huge progress has been made on the environment, peace and security in the last 15 years but we now need a commitment to mainstreaming if we’re to protect communities and ecosystems.
This post by CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director Doug Weir is part of a series on war, law and the environment co-hosted with the International Committee of the Red Cross. It explores six complementary measures the international community should be implementing to address the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts and insecurity.
Three crises, one solution
With humanity facing the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, we can no longer dismiss the environment as somehow irrelevant to peace and human security. These three threats are undermining the ecological systems that support our societies. Without a mainstreaming agenda for the environment that acknowledges this, we risk exacerbating the environmental drivers of vulnerability and insecurity, permitting unacceptable environmental harm during conflicts, and missing opportunities to build sustainable peace.
Understanding and awareness of the environmental dimensions of conflicts and crises have grown exponentially in the last two decades. Environmental concerns have risen up the political agenda and we have become better at articulating the relationship between environmental change and its consequences for people. This is all to the good, but we now face the more difficult challenge of tackling that relationship with effective policy-making.
Unfortunately, some still view environmental concerns as distinct from humanitarian considerations, a luxury issue to be dealt with once the immediate crisis has passed. Part of the problem is how we have framed and conceptualised the fields we work in. For example, whether it’s water quality and availability, or zoonotic or vector borne disease, WASH is an environmental issue. Similarly, it is a healthy environment that provides food security, and underpins rural livelihoods.
This is all perfectly understandable of course. The environment is by its nature all encompassing and difficult to define. We need to break it down into manageable components, something we typically do using anthropocentric frames. But by focusing on those frames, to the exclusion of the bigger picture, are we undermining the importance of the environment as a whole, and in turn setting up the conditions for its under-prioritisation?
An agenda for change
Having reached the stage where the environmental dimensions of conflicts are more visible – not least because rates of environmental degradation and climatic change are forcing them onto the international agenda – we now face the question of how to respond. Do we address different environmental issues in a piecemeal way, or can we also step back and look at that bigger picture?
Last November 6th – the UN’s #EnvConflictDay – our group of civil society organisations working to champion the environment published a six-point plan for a mainstreaming agenda on the environment, peace and security. Taken together, we argued that these six measures are vital for ensuring that the environment enjoys the status and attention it needs, in turn benefitting both human security and ecological health. Progress is already being made on all six measures but much remains to be done, and this post explores each in turn.
1. Recognition and acknowledgement
The first of these measures is the most basic: recognising the intrinsic relationship between the environment, peace and security, as well as the critical role that the environment plays throughout the cycle of conflicts. Environmental degradation and natural resources can be drivers of conflict. The environment is almost always harmed by conflict, often causing damage that contributes to the vulnerability of communities. And post-conflict, weak governance, ungoverned spaces and rapid societal change can accelerate environmental degradation, while resource disputes can prolong insecurity.
One of the main challenges we face is communicating this beyond the swiftly expanding bubble of researchers, practitioners and activists already working in this space. This can be tough. For example, the environment is rarely the only factor contributing to insecurity; people, societies and environmental risks form complex relationships. This is a problem for a world with an appetite for simple narratives and soundbites. We need to become better at telling stories about the ways that environmental change imperils human security.
2. Environmental protection is civilian protection
Our second measure is to acknowledge the inextricable link between the protection of the environment and the protection of civilians. There are two challenges here. The first is that protection in conflict is primarily aimed at protecting people, and not the environment. Unmaking decades of anthropocentrism in the peace and security discourse will not happen overnight but it must happen.
Another challenge relates to our values. Whether it’s payments for ecosystem services, or natural capital accounting, Western society in particular can find it difficult to protect the environment for its own sake. The parallels with peace and security are clear. We tend to see environmental protection in conflicts as important only when it is to protect the health, livelihoods and human rights of civilians. While this may change in the future, in lockstep with our values, for now we must work in this context.
In a positive step, since 2019, the environment has featured in the UN Secretary General’s annual reports on the protection of civilians. Similarly, the relationship between the protection of civilians and the environment has also become more prominent in UN Security Council debates. For example a recent resolution featuring the dilapidated FSO Safer oil tanker off Yemen explicitly made this connection. We should be open to all opportunities to foreground this relationship, and willing to challenge frames like international humanitarian law’s “natural environment”, which create artificial barriers to us doing so.
3. Respect and protect
Having recognised the importance of the environment for human security, and for the protection of civilians, it logically follows that we need to ensure its protection. Our third measure therefore seeks a commitment from states and non-state stakeholders to adopt and implement the legal framework protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts.
Since 2009, huge advances have been made in developing and clarifying this framework. The ICRC’s revised Guidelines articulate protection during conflicts, while draft principles being developed by the UN’s International Law Commission, and which are due to be adopted in 2022, address measures across their entire cycle. These initiatives are complemented by recently developed principles on the protection of water infrastructure, and on assisting the victims of conflict pollution. Crucially, all have been informed by norms established by environmental and human rights law.
With the framework updated, the next decade must focus on implementation and compliance, and in ensuring that the structures necessary to support this are in place. It would be foolish to underestimate the challenge this will present, and huge gaps still remain in the framework, such as influencing the environmental conduct of non-state armed groups.
Implementation and compliance require that environmental protection is viewed as a priority, and this is why the legal framework must be situated within a wider mainstreaming agenda. It is unlikely that we can rely on high profile accountability initiatives such as criminalising ecocide alone to change the environmental conduct of state and non-state actors.
4. Mainstreaming pathways
It’s not just a question of how we talk about the environment, it’s also a question of where we talk about it. Our fourth measure is to encourage effective and sustained measures to mainstream the environment in peace and security discourses, in policymaking, peacebuilding and in post-conflict recovery. As with the other measures dealt with so far, this is already happening to some extent. This is largely thanks to the efforts of civil society, international organisations and supportive states, many of which have direct experience of these issues.
Nevertheless, this trend, which needs to continue and grow, is less pronounced in environmental fora. For example, in the structures created by the Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Some of this is historic – where military or security matters have been deemed too political and avoided in favour of reaching consensus-based environmental agreements.
But the lasting legacy of conflicts on the environment, as well as on domestic environmental governance itself, shows how vital it is to also mainstream peace and security into environmental processes. This should not be done by securitising the environment but instead by articulating and addressing the environmental dimensions of conflicts and of peace, and by developing conflict-sensitive environmental programming to tackle them. This is particularly important where environmental degradation can contribute to renewed insecurity.
5. Visibility and understanding
One of the reasons why attention on the environmental dimensions of conflicts has increased is that they have become more visible. The cliché of the environment as a “silent victim” of conflicts is slowly being laid to rest. And it is environmental data, often remotely gathered, that has informed and supported the legal and policy initiatives of the last 15 years.
Improved access to satellite data, humanitarian datasets and social and traditional media coverage is changing the rules of the game. We can monitor deforestation, agricultural stress and forest fires from incendiary weapons, and even use gravitational data to examine groundwater. And so, our fifth measure is for states to support the environmental data architecture necessary to inform effective decision making. This could be as simple as feeding data on environmental stress into UN Security Council debates, as standard, or as ambitious as UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room.
Powerful as these remote data collection tools are, they do not, and cannot, provide the whole picture. Moreover, an over-reliance on them carries risks, such as methodological flaws in the prediction of environmental security risks using big data, or from the growing prevalence of environmental disinformation in conflicts. To fully understand what is happening on the ground, we will always need data from the ground. This will mean identifying new actors to gather data, and new ways of sharing it. NGOs and affected communities have important roles to play in this, for example through the use of low-cost participatory data collection, or citizen science.
6. Participation and inclusion
Participation is key to our final measure. As is so often the case, those working on conflict and the environment, and those with the loudest voices, have often been based in the organisations of the Global North. Whether it is reducing environmental security risks, implementing post-conflict environmental remediation, environmental peacebuilding or designing and implementing Nature-based Solutions that may run over decades, it is critical that projects are inclusive of and responsive to those who they will affect.
And so our sixth and final measure calls for engagement with and the inclusion of communities, civil society groups and experts in fragile and conflict-affected states as equal and active stakeholders. Our experience has shown that, contrary to expectations, people continue to care about their environment even during periods of conflict or instability. Indeed, in situations such as prolonged occupations, the environment can become a touchstone for identity. Globally, thousands of environmental defenders are risking their lives to protect and restore the environment in fragile and conflict-affected areas. We have a responsibility to help support their work, and provide a platform for them to tell their stories.
Progress is being made on all six of the measures we identified. But these advances need to be accelerated, and the changes they encourage made permanent. While we have come a long way in the last decade, the scale of the environmental crises we face mean that we must go further and faster.
While all the measures explored above are important in their own right, the point about mainstreaming is the importance of the relationships between the measures. A clear example of this is the complementary relationship between environmental information, state engagement on the environment and the identification and implementation of laws and policies intended to address harm. We therefore need to move forward on all of these complementary agendas, simultaneously.
The overarching question we must address is whether this should continue to be done organically, as has hitherto been the case, or whether it should be done more formally? The obvious comparison is with the Women, Peace and Security agenda. While there are justified criticisms in how it has been selectively implemented by states, with a focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war, to the exclusion of its other goals, it cannot be disputed that the agenda has raised the profile of gender in the peace and security discourse, and in policy-making.
It is clear that a critical mass of knowledge, stakeholders and policies is developing on the environment, peace and security. There is momentum, and we increasingly understand what needs to be done. The implications of the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution for human security are severe, and demand a response commensurate with this threat. But this first requires that we afford the environment the importance it deserves.
Doug Weir is CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director. More posts in this joint series will be published during the next fortnight on ceobs.org and the ICRC’s Law and Policy blog. See also: Fighting without a Planet B: how IHL protects the natural environment in armed conflict.