Armed conflicts too often lead to environmental degradation or destruction, with long-lasting effects that contribute to the increased vulnerability of the affected populations. While some rules of international law provide protection to the natural environment and seek to limit the damage caused by it, armed conflicts remains an important cause of environmental damage, leading to food and water insecurity, loss of livelihoods, and biodiversity loss.
Environmental Impact of Armed Conflict
As humanity has always counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, the environment is often a hidden victim of war. Over the years, parties to armed conflicts have polluted water, torched crops, cut down forests, poisoned soils , and killed animals to gain military advantage. Environmental degradation and destruction from conflicts not only takes a toll on nature itself, but also exacerbates food and water insecurity and destroys livelihoods. Environmental damage thus threatens the well-being, health and survival of local populations, and this increases their vulnerability for years and even decades.
Furthermore, at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts over the last 60 years have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse.
Find out more about the environmental consequences of armed conflict:
- Rapid Environmental Assessment of Kakhovka Dam Breach Ukraine | UNEP | 25 October 2023
- Stocktaking of security sector roles in climate and environmental security | DCAF | 18 September 2023
- Protecting the environment in situations of armed conflict | IHL | 7 June 2020
- How does war damage the environment? | CEOBS | 4 June 2020
- Witnessing the Environmental Impacts of War – Environmental case studies from conflict zones around the world | Amnesty International, PAX, Universidad Externado de Colombia, Environmental Law Institute, GGGI, CEOBS, Zoï Environment Network, Kyiv, Norwegian People’s Aid, Geneva Water Hub | 6 November 2020
- The Environment Has Become a Hostage of Armed Conflict | Wim Zwijnenburg | New Security Beat | 6 November 2019
- Natural environment: Neglected victim of armed conflict | ICRC | 5 June 2019
Environmental Protection in Armed Conflict
The importance of protecting the natural environment and its vital resources during and after armed conflicts is increasingly recognized in the global arena. Recent efforts to enhance the legal framework in this field have been undertaken by the International Law Commission (ILC) – a UN body of legal experts on international law. The ILC proposed 27 draft principles for the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict (PERAC), including measures for prevention of environmental damage during conflicts and remediation in the aftermath. The United Nations General Assembly will soon vote on their adoption.
Find out more about ongoing efforts to protect the environment in armed conflict:
- Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts | International Law Commission
- A Study of National Legal Frameworks Related to the Protection of Water During Armed Conflicts – A Follow-Up Study to the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure | Geneva Water Hub | 2023
- Curtailing Environmental Harms in Armed Conflict – New UN Principles for Protecting the Environment During Wartime | Hellen Huang | Human Rights Watch | 4 November 2022
- Towards Better Protecting the Environment in Armed Conflict | Richard Pearshouse | New Security Beat | 10 May 2021
- Les armées commencent à se soucier de la destruction de l’environnement | RTS | 10 May 2021
- Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts | Al-Haq, Amnesty International, CEOBS, Geneva Water Hub & IHRC | May 2021
- The Environment and International Humanitarian Law | ICRC
- Guidelines on protection of natural environment in armed conflict | ICRC | 25 September 2020
- Curbing negative environmental impacts of war and armed conflict | UNEP | 5 November 2019
- The Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure | Geneva Water Hub | 2019
- Protecting the environment during armed conflict: an inventory and analysis of international law | UNEP | November 2009
International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict
Celebrated each year on 6 November, the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict is the opportunity to reiterate the great importance to ensuring that action on the environment is part of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding strategies. Indeed, there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.
Existing at the intersection of peace, conflict, and the nature, environmental peacebuilding recognizes the different ways in which environmental management can support conflict prevention, reduction, resolution, and recovery (Ecosystem for Peace 2022).
Poor management of natural resources in the face of environmental crises can increase the risks of conflict. As such, it is important to ensure that action on the environment is part of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding strategies, as there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.
Find out more about how environmental action can contribute to peacebuilding:
- Linking Conservation and Peacemaking | Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue | 15 March 2023
- Environment of Peace: Security in a new era of risk | Stockholm International Peace Research Institute | May 2022
- A White Paper on the Future of Environmental Peacebuilding: Nurturing an Ecosystem for Peace | Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, PeaceNexus Foundation, Environmental Peacebuilding Association, Environmental Law Institute, and International Union for Conservation of Nature | February 2022
- The Road to Geneva | Environmental Peacebuilding | Geneva Environment Network
- Environment, climate, conflict, and peacebuilding | Geneva Peacebuilding Platform
- Environmental peacebuilding knowledge platform | EnPAx
- The Road to Geneva | EnPAx
- ‘Environmental peacebuilding is essential and complex – but it’s also exciting’ | Carl Bruch | Geneva Solutions | 4 February 2022
- Why International Geneva’s ‘human dimension’ bodes well for environmental peacebuilding| Annika Erickson-Pearson | 2 February 2022
- Building peace by protecting the environment | EnPAx | 6 November 2020
Role of Geneva
Amnesty International is a global movement campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. Among its many streams of work, Amnesty works on the environmental consequences of conflict, localized violent environmental conflicts, and environmental disasters.
Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue
The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) works to prevent and resolve armed conflicts through dialogue, mediation and discreet diplomacy. Finding new entry points for mediation, HD addresses environment-related risks to people’s security and the depletion of natural resources that will only worsen in the years ahead. A 2023 report Linking Conservation and Peacemaking highlights why it is crucial for mediators to explore ways of connecting biodiversity conservation and peacemaking to ensure lasting peace.
DCAF – Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance
DCAF – Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance is dedicated to making states and people safer through more effective and accountable security and justice. Since 2000, DCAF has worked to improve the governance of
security sectors through inclusive and participatory reforms based on international norms and good practices. They have developed expertise in emerging security challenges related to climate change and other environmental challenges.
Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP)
The GCSP is an international foundation with the mission to advance peace, security and international cooperation. Their work focuses on the complex inter-linkages amongst various human security challenges with a special focus on health and environmental security. As a centre of expertise, the GCSP offers various courses on environment and security.
Geneva Peacebuilding Platform
The Geneva Peacebuilding Platform is a knowledge hub that connects the critical mass of peacebuilding actors, resources, and expertise in Geneva and worldwide. The platform facilitates interaction on peacebuilding between different institutions and sectors, and advances new knowledge and understanding of issues and contexts related building peace. As part of its mandate on community management, the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform aims to strengthen networking and community building in different topics within the peacebuilding sectorm including on the environment with the Geneva Dialogue on Environment, Climate, Conflict, and Peace (ECCP). The ECCP Dialogue is now a rich network of 350 individuals across Geneva, Europe, and the world, released a White Paper on Environmental Peacebuilding, contributing to the Road to Geneva.
Geneva Water Hub
The Geneva Water Hub is a centre of excellence specialized in hydropolitics and hydrodiplomacy of the University of Geneva. Its goal is to better understand and prevent water-related tensions between competing uses, between public and private actors, and between political entities and countries.
Graduate Institute’s Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP)
The CCDP is the Graduate Institute’s focal point for research in the areas of conflict analysis, peacebuilding and the complex relationships between security and development. Their research themes include environment and natural resource management for sustainable peace and development.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch, headquartered in New York, with a strong presence in Geneva, investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world. Its environment program covers topics such as threats against environmental defenders and their communities, environmental health issues caused by exposure to toxic substances, human rights violations in the context of climate change, and other advocacy activities.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
The ICRC is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. As an essential part of protecting civilians and their livelihood, the ICRC is supporting the implementation of practical measures to protect the natural environment in times of conflict.
International Law Commission (ILC)
The International Law Commission is a UN expert body responsible for helping develop and codify international law, established by the General Assembly, in 1947, to undertake the mandate of the Assembly, under article 13 (1) (a) of the Charter of the United Nations to “initiate studies and make recommendations for the purpose of … encouraging the progressive development of international law and its codification”. The International Law Commission holds its annual session in Geneva, for a period of ten to twelve weeks . In 2013, the ILC included the protection of environment in relation to armed conflict in its programme of work and has since been working on clarifying the rules and obligations in this area. The commission has adopted the Draft principles on protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts in 2022.
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
The IISD is an independent think tank who aims to accelerate solutions for a stable climate, sustainable resources, and fair economies. One of their work areas is making connections between environmental issues and conflict, particularly how natural resource management and other environmental factors are linked to violent conflicts.
UNEP Disasters and Conflicts Branch
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working around the world to respond to natural disasters, industrial accidents, and human-induced crises. The Geneva-based Disasters and Conflicts Branch has responded to crisis situations in more than 40 countries since 1999, delivering high-quality environmental expertise to national governments and partners in the UN family. The Branch conducts field-based assessments, works to reduce the risk of disaster, and promotes environmental cooperation for peacebuilding, among other activities.
UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit
The UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit is a joint endeavour between UNEP and the UN Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which serves as the Unit’s host. The Unit coordinates international emergency response to acute environmental risks caused by conflicts, natural disasters and industrial accidents.
Zoï Environment Network
Zoï Environment Network is a non-profit organization that helps build sustainable societies through informed analysis, visual communication, design and action. The organisation contributes to regionally and globally recognized flagship assessments on the environment-security interface, through innovative analysis, participatory mapping and visualization.