Environmental factors

How the UN Learned that Protecting the Environment is Central to Creating Peace

Building lasting peace has always posed complex challenges for the international community. In the post-World War II international order, the United Nations (UN) maintained peace and security through peacekeeping, which quickly became the organization’s most prominent tool to help societies emerge from conflict. However, since the UN’s early days, the understanding of peace changed from one predominantly based on stopping interstate wars to one in which justice, development, environmental protection, and other transnational issues have become critical. The international community increasingly understands peace as a multidimensional construct whose establishment and maintenance are not only the outcome of peace negotiations or military successes but also about holistic efforts in the civilian sector. In the 1970s, academic discourse began focusing on creating structures for peace through peacebuilding. Two decades later, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali placed peacebuilding in his report An Agenda for Peacemaking it a priority of virtually every organization in the UN System.

Since then, the understanding of peacebuilding has evolved thanks to the work of committed international actors. Amongst others, environmental protection has come to be considered an essential component for the establishment of a peaceful global order. This is partly due to the UN Environment Program’s (UNEP’s) work, which has highlighted the various connections between environmental degradation, conflict, and insecurity. This is quite a significant achievement because the links are complex and were not initially evident to the international community.

First and foremost, the Program has pointed out how violent conflicts damage the environment in the regions where they are fought. Among the UNEP’s earliest tasks in post-conflict contexts was to assess the damage to the environment caused by war. In the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, for example, it addressed the environmental damage caused by the conflict, particularly by the NATO intervention. In addition, it is now widely recognized that environmental degradation from poor management of natural resources can increase the potential for conflict within and between regions, with climate change proving to be a threat multiplier.

Similar to the UNEP, UN peacekeeping missions also experienced the mutual negative influence of environmental degradation and conflict. Their adverse environmental footprint not only led to a loss of trust and even rejection by the populations in their deployment areas but by failing to address the environmental components of many conflicts, they also did not do enough to reduce risk factors for conflict flare-ups. The work of UN peacekeeping missions and other international actors consistently demonstrated that environmental factors play a role at different stages of the conflict cycle and therefore need to be addressed early on to prevent violence and build sustainable peace.

To systematically and substantively close the knowledge gap on the links between environment and peace, international actors had to engage in a learning process to uncover the various linkages. The establishment of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture created an opportunity for UNEP to establish its Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding program and reach out to the scientific and practitioner communities to generate knowledge on the relationship between the two issues. It first allowed the UNEP to cooperate with scholars to build a knowledge base. The Program also reached out to different political actors in the UN System to share their experiences and work on policies that consider the environmental dimension of peacekeeping, conflict mediation, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, and the role of the environment in empowering women in peacebuilding. Lastly, the UNEP helped promote the uptake of best practices by assisting implementing actors in incorporating environmental concerns into their work. For example, it supported various UN peacekeeping missions to become more environmentally sustainable and contributed to environmental diplomacy by promoting dialogue between stakeholders on sharing natural resources, such as between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Environmental peacebuilding highlights the relevance of experiences, learning, and cooperation to address the multidimensional nature of peacebuilding and thus contributes to international peace and security. The United Nations System should reduce structural barriers that hinder or impede coordination and cooperation between those working for a better environment and those working for peace. In addition, international bureaucracies should be given sufficient autonomy through both advocacy and funding structures that allow latitude to collaborate and learn freely.

Literature for further reading

UNEP, 2016, Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding Program. Final Report 2016. United Nations Environment Programme. Geneva, Switzerland.

Ide, Tobias; Bruch, Carl; Carius, Alexander; Conca, Ken; Dabelko, Geoffrey D.; Matthew, Richard; Weinthal, Erika (2021): The past and future(s) of environmental peacebuilding. In International Affairs 97 (1), pp. 1-16.

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