Armed conflicts reach far beyond the suffering and loss of human lives. Wars and other armed conflicts can take a huge toll on the environment and their negative impacts remain long after peace has been restored and way further from the conflict zone. To address this issue the United Nations proclaimed in 2001 the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, taking place annually on 6 November.
Soil erosion, air pollution, greenhouse effect gas emissions, exposure to nuclear radiation and chemicals are among the biggest environmental threats in times of war. It is not unusual for the parties to an armed conflict to also incur in the destruction of forests, the intentional pollution of water sources or the burning of land and crops as means to gain military advantage. In the face of these situations, international law operates from its environmental, humanitarian, and criminal branches, and of course, under the human rights perspective.
The international community has established several rules of minimum behavior to guarantee the respect of those who do not participate in the conflict, their property, and the environment. The most relevant treaties that deal with the relationship of war and the environment include the 1976 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Environmental Modification Techniques for Military or Other Hostile Purposes, also known as the "ENMOD" Convention. It currently counts 78 states parties, including Canada. Its main goal is to prevent techniques whose purpose is to alter, “through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes, the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth”. Also, the 1977 Protocol Additional I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 forbids using means of war designed to harm the environment, as well as attacking it in retaliation, and the Rome Statute of the ICC considers the extensive and lasting damage caused to the environment like a war crime.
Environmental impact escalates when the exploitation of natural resources is the very cause of the conflict or is a means to finance it. Unfortunately, these are the most widespread cases. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) points out that in the last 60 years, about 40% of internal armed conflicts have had some connection to the exploitation of natural resources and that, in these cases, the risk of relapse into violence doubles. In 2013, the former UN Secretary General warned that the exploitation of natural resources for the financing of criminal groups is a growing risk for international security, especially in impoverished areas of the world with weak states. It was estimated that in Somalia approximately $384 million of illicit trafficking in coal was destined for insurgent and terrorist groups that same year.
In both cases, it seems clear that effective environmental governance is essential to prevent natural resources from becoming a factor of instability. With it, states can contemplate natural resources management as means to consolidate lasting peace and to prevent new conflicts. Adopting legislation at a national level to protect and prevent the misuse of natural resources is, in this sense, a state imperative.
Canada has one of the most strict laws for the protection and management of natural resources in the world. The provinces lead the management of their natural resources and are responsible for developing policies in agriculture, forestry, mining and hydroelectric development. At the federal level, the most prominent legislation enacted for environmental protection includes the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Pest Control Products Act, the Canada Shipping Act, the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, the Fisheries Act and the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act.
Beyond its borders, where the most help is needed, Canada also plays a crucial role regarding armed conflicts and their effects. Canada is one of the main promoters of effective environmental governance worldwide. It has established guidelines for its development cooperation programs so projects take into consideration human rights, transparency, anti-corruption, and environmental sustainability issues. In that way, the participating countries can boost inclusive economic growth, generate jobs and reduce poverty, through addressing such issues.
Unfortunately, the efforts made by the international community still fail to meet the urgent needs of those affected by war. The increasing environmental damage in the context of armed conflicts is a great challenge yet to achieve for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On 6 November, we call for support. A lasting peace can only be built and sustained if natural resources are protected and managed responsibly worldwide.
International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict