During UNEA-2, the TRW Network partnered with Zoi Environment Network, The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and Norwegian People’s Aid on a ‘Green Room’ side event on conflict and the environment. UNEA’s Green Room events are a series of side events primarily for civil society, with a view toward sharing experiences and increasing opportunities for informal dialogue among participants.
Our event was entitled: “Addressing the environmental dimensions of armed conflict to achieve the SDGs” and featured presentations from Carl Bruch, Director of ELI; Otto Simonett, Director of Zoi; and Doug Weir of the Toxic Remnants of War Project. I chaired the event on behalf of PAX and the TRWN. As a bit of context, the event aimed to provide an introduction to the environmental dimensions of contemporary armed conflicts and their relationship to the SDGs. It was designed to consider the gaps in legal protection and international assistance that should be addressed in future, and the role that States and civil society can play in promoting efforts to strengthen the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts.
The three draft resolutions tabled by Ukraine, Jordan and Morocco ahead of UNEA 2 reflect the growing international interest in armed conflict and the environment. It is also becoming increasingly clear that efforts to understand and mitigate the environmental drivers, impact and legacy of conflicts are crucial for ensuring the successful delivery of the environmental dimensions of the SDGs. This is particularly true for the objectives of SDGs 3, 6, 15 and 16. The direct and derived consequences of armed conflicts can seriously degrade environmental quality and systems of environmental governance, harming human health, livelihoods and economies. Nevertheless these linkages remain under-addressed and existing protection for the environmental before, during and after armed conflicts is widely viewed as inadequate.
The event was well attended, with around 65 people gathering in the Green Room, and Ambassador Julia Pataki of Romania launched the panel discussion by discussing the importance of recognising the issues surrounding environmental damage in relation to armed conflicts. These were based on her direct experience working in Iraq following the 2003 conflict.
The first presentation, by Otto Simonett, addressed the conflict in Ukraine. He highlighted environmental issues that had arisen from the Ukrainian conflict such as the uncontrolled dismantling of hazardous enterprises, methane in buildings from flooded mines, the irregular removal of municipal waste, pollution of surface water with sewage, the destruction of nature reserves, a growing rodent population and the mining of the line of contact. Although these issues had been documented in the context of the Ukrainian conflict, they are not specific to that region but are issues that we see time and again across conflicts.
With that in mind, Otto argued that key elements of environmental rebuilding include: the restoration of environmental monitoring, an assessment of the full environmental impact of the fighting as well as of the economic and social damage, the definition of state environmental policy for the affected conflict area, the outlining of maintenance and reconstruction priorities, financing of the work needing to be done and the initiation of a dialogue among all relevant actors.
Doug Weir presented on the effects of the Syrian conflict on the environment. Doug highlighted several issues that have come to the fore during the conflict, including (but not limited to) conflict rubble, damage to industrial facilities, attacks on power facilities, attacks on oil infrastructure, increased municipal and hazardous waste, damage to water processing and distribution systems, the issue of 6.5 million internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict, deforestation through increased timber extraction, the impact on biodiversity (e.g., the loss of a subspecies of the bald ibis near Palmyra) and the nationwide collapse of environmental governance.
The damage is not limited to Syria itself, but has had spill over effects in neighbouring countries. Some of these concerns are similar to what Syria is experiencing, outlined above, but additionally, the increased population growth in neighbouring countries (due to human displacement), and its knock-on effects of increased air pollution, overgrazing and an increase in waste generation (both municipal and hazardous) without management systems in place.
The third and final presentation was given by Carl Bruch. He gave an overview of how the majority of international legal provisions written to protect the environment during conflict are only applicable during international armed conflicts and do not necessarily apply to non-international armed conflicts, or during other moments in a conflict’s life-cycle. Given that most armed conflicts today are non-international, much of the existing legal framework does not apply in these conflicts. This serves to hinder the prevention of the often serious environmental damage that occurs.
Many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are necessary for peace (SDG 16) and in turn, peace is an enabling condition for other SDGs. Environmental peacebuilding, or the process of governing and managing natural resources and the environment to support durable peace, can take place across the life-cycle of conflicts, involving efforts to prevent, mitigate, resolve and recover from violent conflict. Environmental peacebuilding is cross-cutting and involves renewable natural resources (e.g., land, water and fisheries), non-renewable natural resources (e.g., minerals, oil and gas) and ecosystems.
There was a lot of interest in dialogue during the question-and-answer session, but unfortunately time was short for discussion, so we were unable to get to all the participants who wanted to make an intervention. This is positive in the sense that there is a wide interest in continuing the discussion far beyond UNEA-2. One intervention that came early on was from the Ukrainian Ambassador, Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk. He also underscored the importance of drawing attention to these issues, and on behalf of Ukraine, sponsor of the resolution “Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict” thanked the TRWN for the assistance provided via the briefing papers it had provided on the language of the resolution and issues important to its success. At the time of the Green Room event, the negotiations were still ongoing for the passage of the resolution, but as Doug writes here, it ultimately passed by consensus and it forms the most significant UN resolution on conflict and armed conflict since 1992.
It was a successful event and week at UNEA-2, certainly worth marking and celebrating, but the resolution and discussions around it also serve as a reminder of the work yet to do and how far we still need to go in raising awareness on these issues and lobbying governments and all relevant actors to continue recognising the effects of armed conflict on the environment, take steps to comply with environmental provisions outlined in international law, raise awareness of wartime environmental damage and for States to cooperate closely on minimising and mitigating environmental harm.
Jessica Dorsey, is a Program Officer on Humanitarian Disarmament at the Dutch peace organisation PAX @jessicadorsey