Environmental responsibility in conflict-affected areas

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This article is a brief presentation of the Conflict and Environment Observatory’s report on environmental harm in conflict-affected areas.

Since corporate activities can have a disastrous environmental impact, especially in conflict areas, for example through the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, there is a need to deepen the environmental responsibility of states and corporations. It is for this reason that the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a United Kingdom (UK) charity working on the environmental and humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts and military activities and promoting humanitarian disarmament, published the policy report: “Enhancing corporate environmental responsibility in conflict-affected settings”. The report aims to reconceptualize environmental protection during and after conflicts and to clarify the obligations of states and corporations stemming from international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL), and international criminal law (ICL).

Since the environmental security of local communities in several regions is already compromised by climate change, corporation activities can worsen the already precarious environmental security. Accordingly, measures to reduce corporate harm are urgent, especially in conflict-affected areas. For this reason, the report aspires to enhance the understanding of the environmental conduct that states and corporations should have in these areas, as well as clarify the obligations of those actors during the phase of transition after a conflict. First of all, the concept of “environmental security” considers the environment both as an object in need of protection and as a cause of instability. For instance, areas of conflict and civil tensions often coincide with biodiversity hotspots; research shows that over 90% of major armed conflicts with more than 1,000 casualties occurred in countries containing biodiversity hotspots between 1950 and 2000. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defined the notion of “environmental security” as linked to the role that natural resources can play in both the starting of a conflict or the peacebuilding processes. Besides, in recent years, the concept of Environmental Rule of Law emerged as the legal foundation to achieve environmental justice considering states and private entities accountable to laws that are consistent with international human rights standards and environmental protection. 

Moreover, environmental harm primarily impacts Fragile and Conflict-Affected Areas (FCAS), indeed conflict might intersect with the environment under different forms, including conflict over natural resources that are unequally distributed or conflict that causes environmental degradation. To this can be added the effect of corporate involvement in environmentally harmful activities during conflict, that is twofold: it can cause damage to the environment and can also perpetuate the conflict. As a result, there are regulations and obligations for both private and public entities. In particular, since states remain the primary actors in conflict settings, they have obligations concerning corporate environmental responsibility under International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law, and International Criminal Law. IHL regulates the conduct of hostilities to limit the effects of armed conflict, including on the natural environment, for example, it establishes the prohibition against pillage. IHRL stresses the link between the enjoyment of human rights and environmental degradation since the right to a healthy environment is part of the right to life. The ICL includes among the “war crimes” also the long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. Moreover, there are soft law instruments that regulate the conduct of corporations concerning environmental protection in conflict settings. Among these, there are the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) that include environmental harm into human rights violations and stress the duty of the state to protect the environment ensuring that enterprises located in their territories and conflict zones are not involved in abuses. Also, enterprises are considered compelled to respect the standards of IHL and, if the activities of a private entity have an impact, they have the obligation of remediation. Besides, the UN International Law Commission adopted 28 draft principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts which include the enterprises’ obligation to protect. Finally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) developed the guidelines for multinational enterprises which contain obligations and recommendations about human rights issues and environmental concerns, exhorting companies to produce with a low environmental impact and to provide effective remedies for human rights violations. 

Accordingly, the report proposes some policy recommendations for states and corporations. Public entities should commit to the protection of the environment in FCAS from harm caused by state and non-state actors; should enforce specific regulations on the supervision of corporate activities that could provoke environmental harm in conflict and post-conflict settings and adopt a “National Action Plan on Business, Human Rights and the Environment”. In addition, victims of environmental damages should have eased access to justice and should be provided with effective remedies. On the other side, corporations should review the environmental implications of their activities in FCAS and adopt policies in respect of the UN Guiding Principles, together with improving their environmental performance and providing adequate reparations for environmental harm. 

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Author: Eleonora Gonnelli; Editor: Benedetta Spizzichino

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