UN General Assembly declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.
When we measure the brutality of war we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. The toxic legacy of war is often ignored and with it the long-term damage to the health of millions of people struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Water wells have been polluted, crops torched, forests cut down, soils poisoned, and animals killed to gain military advantage.
According to UN Environment, over the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts 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.
Since the beginning of this century, the world has witnessed more than 2,500 disasters and 40 major conflicts. These tragic events – which have affected more than two billion people – destroy infrastructure, displace populations, and fundamentally undermine human security. They also compound poverty and tear apart the fabric of sustainable development.
Poor governance of the environment and natural resources can contribute to the outbreak of conflict. It can fuel and finance existing conflicts and it can increase the risk of relapse. Conversely, there are many examples of natural resources serving as catalysts for peaceful cooperation, confidence-building and poverty reduction.
In the aftermath of violent conflict, natural resources, such as land, timber, minerals, oil and gas, are often the primary assets that governments need to support livelihoods and economic recovery. How governments manage these resources can fundamentally alter the course of post-conflict peacebuilding. That is why it is so important that we work together to combat environmental crime, end the illegal exploitation of natural resources, improve transparency, share benefits more equitably and encourage the participation of women, indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups in decision-making.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly recognizes that “sustainable development cannot be realized without peace and security; and peace and security will be at risk without sustainable development.”
The United Nations attaches great importance to ensuring that action on the environment is part of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding strategies - because there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.
Economic Cost of War
According to the 12th annual "Global Peace Index" released by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world is less peaceful today than at any time in the past decade.
The economic impact of violence was $14.8 trillion in 2017 or 12.4 per cent of global GDP – equivalent to nearly $2,000 per person.
Children and War
Over the years, wars have moved from battlefields to backyards. Children from Democratic Republic of Congo to Afghanistan to Uganda, are growing up with the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds. As one expert said, “children are dropping out of childhood.”
Today, children make up more than half of the refugee population.
Conflicts disproportionately affect children. Many are subject to abductions, military recruitment, killing, maiming, and numerous forms of exploitation children.
According to a report by UNICEF, “Not only are large numbers of children killed and injured, but countless others grow up deprived of their material and emotional needs, including the structures that give meaning to social and cultural life. The entire fabric of their societies their homes, schools, health systems and religious institutions are torn to pieces.”
The SDGs recognize that children, who represent the majority of the population in many countries affected by conflict, are key to building peaceful and strong societies. Human rights, peace, justice and strong institutions are at the heart of the SDGs. This includes ensuring quality education and health services for all, ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and ending all forms of violence against children.
Women and War
Women experience war differently from men. They see firsthand the unique impact that conflict, increased militarization and violent extremism has on their communities, their families, and their own bodies. Less visible than the headlines, however, is how women carry on in spite of violence that may surround them: they seek education, continue careers, and raise families — sometimes traveling long distances to bring their children to safety.
Women are the beating heart of their family and community. War hits home when it hits women and girls. Where war and conflict exists, the suffering and untold stories of women exist.
To create lasting peace, we need women’s voices. From conflict prevention and conflict resolution to reconciliation and economic recovery post-conflict, women’s meaningful participation in peace processes increases the likelihood that an agreement will last longer than 15 years by as much as 35 per cent. But women’s participation in peace processes goes beyond just representation and quotas. Meaningful participation means that women are at the table when negotiations are taking place, women’s interests and lived experiences are fully reflected in peace processes, and that women are equally considered in recovery efforts in the aftermath in conflict.
According to UN Women when women are included in peace processes, there is a 20 per cent increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years, and a 35 per cent increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least 15 years.
Women and Environment
Natural disasters and conflict can render women more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. The displacement, stress and trauma experienced by survivors can intensify existing risk factors. For example, according to an OHCHR report, after two tropical cyclones hit Vanuatu in 2011, the Tanna Women’s Counselling Centre reported a 300 per cent increase in new domestic violence cases.
Women play a critical role in managing natural resources on family and community levels and are most affected by environmental degradation. In communities around the world, women manage water, sources for fuel, and food, as well as both forests and agricultural terrain. Women produce 60 to 80 percent of food in developing countries.
Interventions around natural resources, environment and climate change provide significant opportunities to empower women politically and economically, and to strengthen their contributions to conflict prevention and peacebuilding in conflict-affected countries. Yet opportunities related to natural resources remain underutilized in peace and development programming.
Women are the ones who have the social and cultural memory of the practices used to protect the environment and they know the processes on how to restore the environment and thus they must be a part of the recovery phase.
Involving women in protecting the environment would help societies develop the sense of responsibility needed to maintain a good balance between humans and the earth’s resources.
Nadia Murad’s story
Nadia Murad was born and raised in the quiet agricultural village of Kocho, Iraq – Yazidis and other communities lived harmoniously as neighbors. She and her family – including many brothers and sisters - lived a peaceful, happy life. Nadia was in secondary school and had dreams of becoming a history teacher and a make-up artist.
Nadia’s peaceful existence ended on August 3, 2014, when the ISIS (Daesh), attacked her village. Nadia, along with her two sisters and thousands of other women and children, were taken captive and subjected to unspeakable crimes.
Along with forced conversion, the young girls were enslaved and endured sexual violence and trafficking, and sometimes forced marriage. Nadia was only 21 years old. She and her two sisters were enslaved; their mother was executed as she was considered too old for sexual enslavement.
Nadia was initially held hostage in a building with thousands of families. She witnessed young children given to ISIS soldiers as gifts. After enduring this unimaginable brutality, Nadia was finally able to escape.
Today, Nadia has become the voice of the voiceless and is the co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize – a leading advocate for survivors of genocide and sexual violence. She is dedicated to advocating for women, children, persecuted minorities and victims of sexual violence.