Iraq tables conflict pollution resolution ahead of December’s UN Environment Assembly

Boys near the northern Iraqi town of Qayyarah in 2016, the town and its residents were severely affected by oil spills and fires as a result of Islamic State’s scorched earth policy. Credit: Oxfam.

The Iraqi government has tabled a draft resolution aimed at addressing pollution caused by armed conflicts and terrorist operations for this year’s meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA3). The overarching theme of UNEA3 is pollution, and the universal membership body is the UN’s primary decision-making body on the environment. Doug Weir takes a look at the scope of the initial text and looks ahead to the negotiations.

UNEA was established in 2012 to replace UN Environment’s Governing Council, expanding its membership with the aim of seeking to better coordinate responses to global environmental issues at the international and UN level. It normally takes place every two years but in an effort to better align its work with that of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, UNEA3 will take place this December. At its last meeting in May 2016, UNEA passed an historic resolution on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict. The wide-ranging text, which was tabled by Ukraine, was the most significant UN resolution on the topic since 1992; however the entire meeting was almost derailed by a resolution calling for a fresh environmental assessment of the Gaza Strip, after Israel broke with the assembly’s policy of consensus.

In a sign that UNEA is still a work in progress, this year’s meeting will be shorter and more focused, with fewer resolutions. To aid that focus, its overarching theme will be pollution, and the resolutions and ministerial outcome document will seek to draw attention to the problem and, it is hoped, promote solutions and global action.

Having suffered decades of environmental degradation from recurrent conflicts and insecurity, most recently at the hands of Islamic State and its scorched earth policies, for example around its northern oil fields, the Mishraq sulphur factory, as well as wider environmental damage from military activities, it is unsurprising that Iraq has chosen to highlight conflict pollution. Its draft resolution ‘Pollution control in areas affected by terrorist operations and armed conflicts’, which will receive its first reading this week captures many of the conflict-mediated pollution problems that the country, and many others, continue to face. The draft can be divided into three parts: a reaffirmation of core environmental and rights principles; a description of the nature of the problem; and proposals for how UN Environment and other actors could help address the generation and harm from toxic remnants of war.

Reaffirmation of core principles

The draft resolution borrows heavily from some of the consensus language in the 2016 resolution. It references the SDGs and environmental human rights, and notes the impact of conflict pollution on vulnerable groups. It also carries over language on gender – in this case the specific negative effects of pollution on women and girls and the need to ensure a gendered perspective when addressing contamination. Language on the need to protect natural resources in conflict because of their vital role in building peace is also included, as is the transboundary impact of conflict pollution, for example those resulting from oil fires or chemical spills.

Scope of the problem

Core principles established, the text then considers the means through which pollution may be generated in relation to conflicts. The text addresses scorched earth policies and the targeting of environmentally risky infrastructure, which a recently published study has shown has been a hallmark of recent conflicts in the MENA region. Pollution from damage to residential areas and military facilities is also noted, as are issues associated with the collapse of environmental governance, such as improper waste disposal and the growth of polluting coping strategies among affected communities. Reflecting Islamic State’s attempts to obtain hazardous materials for use as weapons, the resolution also highlights the risks from radioactive materials and toxic industrial chemicals. In addition to the direct health and environmental costs of conflict pollution, the resolution also references its socio-economic impact, such as the loss of access to agricultural land, which can impede post-war recovery.

Proposals for addressing conflict pollution

The operative part of the draft resolution urges the parties to conflicts to help minimise damage to facilities or infrastructure that can be a source of pollution, and to cooperate where it does occur, also urging them to implement all applicable international law that would contribute towards this objective. It requests that UN Environment work with a range of stakeholders to help monitor and respond to conflict pollution, and for states to ensure that affected communities participate fully in assessment and remediation programmes. Most intriguingly the draft proposes that UN Environment consider the modalities necessary to establish a dedicated unit for addressing conflict pollution, in addition to their existing role undertaking post-conflict assessments at the request of states.

Finally the draft makes two references to the ongoing work of the International Law Commission on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts (PERAC), citing its draft principle on the toxic and hazardous remnants of war and calling for continued cooperation between UN Environment and the ILC as the project continues.

Looking ahead

Negotiations on the draft will begin shortly and, if 2016’s resolution is any guide, work towards a consensus text will be slow and, at times, painful. There are several states who have historically opposed resolutions on conflict and the environment and at present it is unclear how the draft will be received. However it develops, it is another clear sign that the environmental dimensions of conflicts are rising up the global policy agenda. As pollution from conflicts and military activities remains under-addressed, the resolution and any actions that stem from its implementation could play a valuable role in strengthening efforts to protect human and environmental health from these sources.

We will be following the negotiations closely but as the majority of the core principles reflect language agreed by consensus in 2016, and the language on the scope of the problem is a matter of historical record, it might reasonably be anticipated that the focus of the negotiations will relate to Iraq’s proposals to address the problem. The 2016 resolution was strengthened significantly through the co-sponsorship of both conflict-affected and western states, with Norway, the EU and Canada all supporting Ukraine’s text. This will therefore be another area to watch as the negotiations progress.

 

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project.     

 

 

 

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