This is the fourth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2018 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Environmental degradation due to climate change is grabbing headlines and showing how important our environment is for well-being, peaceful existence, security, and stability. How conflict impacts the environmental, however, receives little attention from states and the international community. But times seem to be changing. At the third UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, states adopted a new resolution on conflict pollution, submitted by Iraq. The resolution acknowledges the intrinsic link between conflict, environmental damage and pollution. Among many other important references, it calls for identification, assessment and remediation of pollution caused by conflict and terrorist acts; inclusion of communities in post-conflict assessment work; and collection of data for identifying health outcomes that should be integrated into health registries and risk education programs. Therefore, the resolution is an important step towards mitigating the effects conflict pollution and toxic remnants of war can have on human health and the environment. This was the second resolution that takes on this subject; the first one, Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict was adapted in 2016 at the second UN Environmental Assembly. There has been a long road since the first UNGA resolution A/47/37 on Protection of the Environment in Armed Conflict was introduced in 1992, with multiple discussions undertaken with the ICRC, the International Law Commission, and others in the interim to improve the work on conflict and environmental protection.
Wars and conflicts that rage on today continue to have disastrous environmental consequences, ranging from earlier cases of pollution in Iraq to the rise of civilian-run artisanal oil refining in Syria, and also broader environmental security struggles in Columbia and Lake Chad. Clearly, a comprehensive approach is needed on multiple levels that hold both state and non-state actors accountable for military activities before, during, and after conflict. The international community will need to step up its efforts to tackle the environmental health risks in and after conflict by providing expertise, capacity, and funding to affected states and international organisations. Implementing the UNEA resolution should involve exploring with civil society, the academic, and the scientific community how to minimize and prevent environmental damage in conflicts. Next, more work can also be done by the humanitarian community to support identification and monitoring environmental pollution in their response work, which should support faster clean-up and remediation. This can be done through the UN Cluster systems, and by engaging with experts to start a community of practice where various tools and techniques are shared in order to develop methods on data collection, analysis, and joint humanitarian response to toxic remnants of war.
2018 will see several donor conferences dealing with rebuilding Iraq and Syria where the environmental component should be a key element in reconstruction efforts. Furthermore, the ICRC Is likely to publish an update on their guidelines of military manuals where there can be room for improvement on discussion of targeting procedures. With these and other key opportunities, states should move forward in 2018 on the conflict and environment nexus, striving for progressive change that can help save lives, livelihoods and the environment we all depend on.
Wim Zwijnenburg is a Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader at PAX, based in the Netherlands