In search of environmental security at UNEA-4

UNEA-3’s opening plenary in 2017. The last two meetings of the Assembly saw the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts high on the agenda but this year things are rather different. Credit: IISD.

March sees the fourth meeting of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. The previous two sessions have seen significant resolutions passed on the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts. Things are a little different this time round as there are no dedicated conflict resolutions on the table. In this blog, Doug Weir goes in search of language on conflicts, and environmental security, in the more than thirty draft resolutions that have been tabled. Along the way finding that the concept of environmental security remains as contested as ever.

The fourth UN Environment Assembly, conflicts and environmental security

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which aims to be the leading body for the environment in the UN system, was established in 2012 by converting UN Environment’s governing council into a universal membership body. At UNEA-2 and UNEA-3, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, ground-breaking resolutions were passed on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict, and on conflict pollution. Both offered the potential to strengthen UN Environment’s mandate for its work on conflicts, to focus attention on specific interventions on the ground, and to complement other processes underway within the UN system.

In the run up to UNEA-3, it was decided that each Assembly would have an overarching theme in order to aid public engagement. Unfortunately, this has lumbered UNEA-4 with an unwieldy compromise theme of Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production after states failed to reach consensus. Among the blizzard of resolutions tabled ahead of March’s meeting – some 36 at the time of writing – there was language of relevance to armed conflicts. There were also references to environmental security – a topic championed by the recently departed UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim during his brief but eventful tenure. But there were more resolutions where mentions of environmental security or conflicts were curiously absent, in spite of the relevance of the subject matter.

We scrutinised the text of the 36 draft resolutions during the week of the 12th February for their relevance to either armed conflicts or environmental security. This revealed 11 drafts of interest, which could be divided into those that: explicitly mentioned armed conflicts or environmental security; didn’t mention either but probably ought to have done; and procedural texts that related to the implementation of the UNEA-2 and UNEA-3 conflict resolutions. Some of the resolutions that are discussed below were subsequently merged with others in order to reduce the overall number of drafts to be negotiated.

Draft resolutions that mentioned armed conflicts

Of the two draft resolutions that mentioned armed conflicts, the Arab States’ Promoting innovative solutions for solid waste management was the most interesting. In its preamble, which considers the challenges associated with the management of solid waste, it draws attention to the importance of technology, regulatory frameworks and information management systems for strengthening waste management; noting their particular importance for countries in post-conflict situations, or that are affected by conflicts. Post-Islamic State Mosul, with its legacy of millions of tonnes of debris, is testament to the scale of the problem that many countries in the region face.

The resolution requests UN Environment and international partners to mobilise efforts to provide early assistance on waste and debris management for states emerging from crises. It continues by proposing that UN Environment coordinate with member states and relevant UN and humanitarian agencies to incorporate waste management in humanitarian recovery and response plans, in order to “build back better”. This text was later merged with two other resolutions but the relevant language remains, with scope for it to be improved by the inclusion of clearer references to environmental protection and sustainability in debris management plans.

Another reference to conflicts appeared in Iran’s text on Sand and dust storms, which was subsequently merged with the African Group’s Innovation on biodiversity and land degradation. Lost in the merger was a vague reference to insecurity as a contributing factor to the expansion of areas affected by sand and dust storms, alongside the effects of climate change and the improper management of water resources and aquatic ecosystems. Recent research from Lund University has found that dust storms in the Middle East are primarily linked to the related issues of water scarcity and poor water management, and the abandonment of agricultural land – both of which may be caused or exacerbated by conflicts.

Draft resolutions that mentioned environmental security

The term made only one appearance in a resolution – in a US-sponsored draft on UN Environment’s Science-Policy Interface. In Environment Under Review: Enhancing UNEP’s Science-Policy Interface and Endorsement of the Sixth Global Environment Outlook report, the draft text gives the incoming Executive Director Inger Anderson two years to develop a long-term strategy for the collection, storage, access to and use of global environmental data. This would prioritise the provision of assistance to member states in building their capacity to monitor, store and analyse data on various environmental issues, including on environmental security. The term is however included in the draft Ministerial Outcome Document – more discussion on that below.

Debris and rubble in Mosul in 2018. The Arab Group’s resolution on solid waste management encourages more support for states affected by or recovering from conflict in dealing with situations like this. Credit Hassan Partow/UNEP 

Draft resolutions that didn’t mention either but probably ought to have done

There were three drafts that didn’t explicitly mention armed conflicts but probably ought to have done, given their scope. The first was the EU’s Deforestation and agricultural commodity supply chains, which stressed the urgent need to eliminate deforestation and forest degradation and fragmentation related to agricultural commodity production and consumption. Accelerating deforestation has become a defining issue for post-conflict Colombia, with felling taking place for both timber extraction and for the renewal and expansion of agricultural areas abandoned during the conflict. Several national parks are on the frontline of this tide. UNEA resolutions are generally intended to be global in scope and this should really be an opportunity to address the problems that countries affected by or recovering from conflict face.

Another EU resolution, on the Sound management of chemicals, urged all stakeholders to intensify and prioritise efforts towards the sound management of chemicals and waste, in order to achieve SDG target 12.4. The lengthy text made a great many recommendations on how this might be achieved, including via the provision of technical advice, policy support and capacity building to developing countries and countries with economies in transition. But what the draft failed to do was to mention the specific needs of conflict-affected and post-conflict states. Language to this effect would have been valuable in linking back to and reinforcing UNEA-3’s resolution on conflict pollution, which did highlight the need to address the specific needs of states in these situations. However, the EU’s original text was later merged with a shorter African Group text after February 12th, with less scope for a conflict perspective.

In light of the long and often lethal relationship between the control and extraction of mineral resources and the triggering or sustaining of conflicts, Mexico’s resolution on Mineral resource governance seemed an obvious place to find some language on conflicts. Yet although it highlights the need for sharing best practice on the sustainable management of mineral resources, it makes no mention of the linkage between mineral resources and conflicts, nor the potential role of such resources as a tool for building or sustaining peace.

As far as environmental security is concerned, the African Group’s draft resolution Poverty environment nexusaddresses many environmental security themes without ever framing them as such. In addressing many of the environmental dimensions of human security, it acknowledges how climate change, environmental degradation, desertification, natural disasters and other environmental changes are contributing to increased levels of poverty. In turn, poverty results in human migration and displacement, which can then contribute to pressures on the natural resources of host states.

Finally, Kenya’s resolution on Rangelands and pastoralism, which is calling for an international year of rangelands, goes into a high degree of detail about many of the environmental and social challenges facing both rangelands and the pastoralists who rely on them. As with the Poverty environment nexus text, it covers a great deal of ground but at no stage are these issues framed holistically as “environmental security”.

The relevant procedural texts

There are also three resolutions relating to procedural matters that are of relevance to UNEA’s work on conflicts. One of the main criticisms of the Assembly to date has been that the enthusiasm for tabling resolutions has far outweighed the enthusiasm for funding commitments, or for ensuring that they are implemented, by UN Environment but particularly by states themselves. As such it was inevitable that a resolution would eventually be tabled on this issue, and the African Group’s Implementation and follow-up of UNEA resolutions and related activitiesseeks to formalise the implementation process. A report on the implementation of UNEA-3’s conflict pollution resolution indicates that its sponsor, Iraq, has been the main beneficiary but that beyond this, UN Environment’s activities have continued largely unchanged. However, the text has also had a normative impact beyond UNEA – something that is more difficult to quantify.

The main vehicle through which UNEA-3’s resolutions are to be implemented is the Executive Director’s implementation plan “Towards a Pollution-free Planet”. This includes the resolution on conflict pollution, and to some extent its 2016 predecessor on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict. A resolution on the adoption of the plan has been tabled by the EU with the support of Costa Rica. Neither the plan itself or the resolution on its implementation contain detail with respect to the conflict resolutions, and clarity on how the resolutions will be implemented beyond UN Environment’s normal activities continues to be lacking.

The third resolution of note is that endorsing the plan for the next decade-long Montevideo Programme on the progressive development of environmental law. The next cycle may see a more visible programme of work than the cycle just concluded. A programme that may include the interaction between environmental law and peace and security, due to its intention to: “Promote the recognition of the mutually reinforcing relationship between environmental law and the three pillars of the Charter of the United Nations.”

State objections to environmental security

With the notable exception of the Arab Group’s text on solid waste management, explicit references to either conflicts or to environmental security were few and far between. But are we expecting too much? Many of the resolution themes above are global environmental issues that are relevant in peacetime as well as conflict, with their peacetime applicability thankfully the norm. But at the same time, it seems remarkable – to us at least – that you could draft resolutions on say, mineral management or deforestation, and not mention the well-recognised link between these resources and conflicts. Similarly, not taking note of the specific problems that states recovering from or affected by conflict face in dealing with chemicals and wastes is unfortunate, if your stated aim is to “leave no one behind”.

The situation with regard to environmental security is somewhat different, and perhaps more interesting for those who would seek to use, or are already using it, as a framing for advocacy. In spite of its lengthy pedigree, its definition remains as contested as it is fluid. And it is perhaps telling that it doesn’t appear once in the Poverty environment nexus text. The draft is a remarkable fit with any understanding of environmental security that focuses on human security, rather the interests of states or militaries.

In addition to the resolutions, efforts to include the term “environmental security” in UNEA-4’s Ministerial Outcome Document have been opposed by a handful of states. The current draft would see governments agreeing to scale-up their efforts to overcome common environmental challenges, for instance by pledging to improve monitoring systems. And it is proposed that one of the areas to be monitored is environmental security, with states free to interpret what this means in practice as they wish. Nevertheless, even this modest proposal looks to be a step too far for some. This opposition from a minority of states to “the S word” has implications for UN Environment’s new Environmental Security Unit, which was established by Solheim. A majority of states interpret the concept of environmental security as “environmental risks to human security”. However, others take a different view. Some reject any suggested linkages between environmental degradation and insecurity. Others are suspicious of past cases where the concept has been subject to securitisation by states, militaries and defence researchers, wary of where this might eventually lead.

Within the UN system, much of the heavy political work around environmental security remains focused on the Security Council. This looks set to continue with Germany’s membership and quest for a resolution on climate security. But the scale of the challenge, and the breadth of the issue, justifies the utilisation of more UN fora, including UNEA – something that CEOBS will continue to advocate for. But with the S word carrying too much political baggage for some, thought will be needed on how to ensure the international community approaches the increasingly urgent need to address environmental risks to human security without getting trapped by contested framings.


Doug Weir is the Research and Policy Director at The Conflict and Environment Observatory

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