Top UN official: Environmental protection in war more urgent than ever

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Source: UNEP

Ambassador Marie G. Jacobsson Honored at Fourth Annual Al-Moumin Award and Distinguished Lecture on Environmental Peacebuilding

Fires at oil refinery, Pancevo, Serbia. Pic taken from UNEP.

Fires at oil refinery, Pancevo, Serbia. Pic taken from UNEP.

Washington, DC, 3 November 2016 – In a year dominated by the tragedy of war, there is no more urgent time to address the need to protect the environment in armed conflicts, Ambassador Marie G. Jacobsson said today at the Fourth Annual Al-Moumin Lecture on Environmental Peacebuilding.

Dr. Jacobsson, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict and recipient of this year’s prestigious Al-Moumin Award, said that while states and international organizations have taken steps to prevent environmental harm before and after armed conflict, they have been unwilling to commit to further legally binding rules during armed conflict.

“Many of us remember the shocking images of environmental destruction during times of war, such as the Agent Orange in Vietnam or the burning oil wells in in Kuwait,” Dr. Jacobsson said. “I witnessed the long-lasting effects of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands earlier this year, and the effects of remnants of war at sea for the small islands States in the Pacific.

“The environment is a vital tool for building sustainable peace and respect for human rights. The need to protect it in the context of armed conflict is more urgent today than ever before.”

This urgency has been highlighted by the recent offensive in Iraq. Up to 19 oil wells were set ablaze by retreating ISIL militants following the launch of a major military offensive to retake the city of Mosul. The burning of crude oil exposed citizens and armed forces to toxic fumes and pollutants, including soot and gases that cause health problems such as skin irritation, shortness of breath and respiratory illnesses.

“Dr. Marie Jacobsson is a deserving winner of the Al-Moumin Award and her urgent call to action comes as we see the environment being used as a tool to inflict further suffering on the people of Northern Iraq,” said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim.

“Iraq is just one example where armed conflicts have caused the wholesale destruction of the environment – pushing countless people to join the unprecedented global refugee population after their living conditions have become unbearable. That’s why the environment needs to be placed at the centre of crisis response, conflict prevention and conflict resolution.”

Based on Dr. Jacobsson’s work examining the legal rules applicable before, during, and after armed conflict, the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC) has outlined a set of draft ‘principles’ that focus on preventive and post-conflict measures to protect the environment. They include the need for post-conflict environmental assessments and remedial measures, the sharing and granting of access to information, and the environmental impact of peace operations.

The principles also encourage the establishment of protective zones of major environmental and cultural interest, as these areas can have a critical importance for protecting fragile ecosystems and for ensuring the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples.

Dr. Jacobsson also pointed to the United Nations Environment Assembly’s resolution in May 2016 on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflicts as “a major signal” of nations’ commitment to confront the issue. In September, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) published a paper saying that environmental crimes are to be regarded as priority areas in terms of determining the gravity of the crimes. And just last week Ronny Abraham, President of the International Court of Justice, addressing the legal affairs committee of the United Nations General Assembly, said that he is seeing a growing number of disputes before the world court in which environmental protection issues are a concern.

“This year is set to be a milestone in global efforts to protect the environment in connection with armed conflict,” she said. “As the path for increased protection of the environment continues, it is my hope that the momentum established by these concurrent tracks – might serve to provide a holistic and integrated protection for existing and future generations.”

The Al-Moumin Award and Distinguished Lecture on Environmental Peacebuilding is part of a broader effort by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), UN Environment, American University’s School of International Service, and other institutions to foster analysis and dialogue regarding the connections between conflict, peace, and the environment. The Al-Moumin Lecture Series recognizes leading thinkers who are shaping the field of environmental peacebuilding, which aims to improve natural resource management to prevent, end, and recover from armed conflict.

The award and lecture are named after Dr. Mishkat Al-Moumin, Iraq’s first Minister of Environment, human rights and environment lawyer, and a former International Visiting Scholar at ELI.

Scott Fulton, President of ELI, said, “As the world experiences increasing pressures on its natural resources and climate, countries must learn to peacefully resolve disputes and leverage resources for post-conflict recovery. This is at the heart of ELI’s Environmental Peacebuilding Program.”

Notes to editors

Dr. Jacobsson has been a Member of the ILC since 2007. She was appointed Special Rapporteur for the topic Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict in 2013. She also serves as Principal Legal Adviser on International Law at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and is an Associate Professor of International Law at Lund University, Sweden.

For further information, please contact Rachel Jean-Baptiste at +1.202.558.3101 or jean-baptiste@eli.org

For media enquiries, please contact UN Environment Newsdesk in Nairobi, Kenya, at +254.725.939.620 or unepnewsdesk@unep.org