The environment – yet another victim of armed conflict

Published 4 December 2017 in:

Photo: UN Photo/Shaw McCutcheon

The theme of the UN Environment Assembly in December this year is ‘Beat Pollution’, and one of the issues to be discussed is how to prevent environmental exploitation in war and armed conflict. Marie Jacobsson, who is Ambassador at the Department for International Law, Human Rights and Treaty Law, is engaged in this issue.

In 2016, a resolution was adopted by the UN Environment Assembly that called attention to the issue of how to protect the environment in areas affected by war and armed conflict. The question will be raised again in the UN Environment Assembly in December this year.

The theme of the Assembly is ‘Beat Pollution’, and one angle will therefore be how pollution caused by acts of war and terrorism affects the civilian population’s environmental safety in areas where environmental governance has collapsed entirely.

Affects the civilian population’s future living conditions

Ambassador Marie Jacobsson, who is engaged in this issue, believes that the situation of women should be particularly highlighted, since environmental degradation often directly affects the living conditions of women – and thereby also of families.

“Today, the challenges we face are often different from a few decades ago, when two states fought against each other. Today, we see severe environmental impacts in non-international conflicts, for example on the African continent. Another current example is Daesh, whose hostilities and terrorist acts have devastating effects on the environment and thereby also on the civilian population’s future living conditions,” says Ms Jacobsson.

Ms Jacobsson is the Principal Legal Adviser on International Law at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, works on international law issues concerning international peace and security, which have been her main focus for a long time. For ten years, she was also a member of the UN International Law Commission and was then appointed UN Special Rapporteur for the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict.

Ms Jacobsson explains that Sweden has a long-standing commitment on environmental protection in armed conflict, in which the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the environment is an important milestone:

“We also led the way in environmental issues when humanitarian law was further developed in the 1970s. After the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Sweden and Jordan pushed through a resolution on the issue in the UN General Assembly. Environmental protection rules in war are often politically sensitive because of the effects of nuclear weapons. However, conventional warfare also almost always entails environmental impact of some sort. Thus, balance must be attained between legitimate warfare and the maximum limit for how much environmental damage can be accepted,” says Ms Jacobsson.

In connection with the 2011 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the Nordic countries pledged to continue to study how the legal framework could be improved. The pledge resulted in a study and an expert conference that both came to the conclusion that the framework could be developed. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also working on a update of its Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instruction on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict.

Swedish Armed Forces have an environmental perspective

Ms Jacobsson believes that Sweden contributes in many ways: “The Swedish Armed Forces are at the forefront in regulating their operations in a way that is accepted under environmental law, both in their national operations and when we participate in international operations. The Swedish Defence Research Agency cooperates closely with the United Nations and its ‘Greening the Blue Helmets’ policy on how to handle environmental issues in connection with UN operations.”

How, then, can Sweden help address this serious situation on environmental impact in armed conflict? Ms Jacobsson explains that Sweden will continue to work on the issue. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ international law and disarmament delegation, headed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has appointed a working group on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict. Ms Jacobsson convenes this group and leads the work.

“The idea is for the working group, which also includes stakeholders from other ministries, government agencies, civil society, academia and the United Nations Environment Programme, to draft proposals for potential Swedish initiatives.”

Environmental impact from previous conflicts is often forgotten

As regards the future, Ms Jacobsson believes it is important not to forget the issue at hand simply because it is an uphill battle.

“There are strong links between sustainable development and the protection of the environment even in connection with armed conflict. It is particularly important to highlight the gender perspective.”

Images that we see on television and the internet from current conflict areas are often dramatic, but the long-term effects are often forgotten:

“In the Pacific region, we see not only the continued consequences of 1950s nuclear tests, but also how leaking shipwrecks of warships affect the marine environment and the populations’ opportunities to make a living, even though it has been 70 years since they sank.”