6 November 2021

Twenty years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared 6 November of each year the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Since then, the observance  has focused international attention on everything from blood diamonds and other conflict resources to the intentional targeting of the environment through scorched earth tactics.

We have made substantial progress in both understanding and action. In 1991, the United Nations Compensation Commission completed its evaluation of the wrongful environmental damage caused by the 1990-91 Gulf War, awarding $5.3 billion in compensation. The United Nations  International Law Commission developed draft principles of international law on protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict. The United Nations Development Group, which preceded the United Nations Sustainable Development Group, adopted guidance on Natural Resource Management in Transition Settings, applicable across 38 United Nations agencies, funds, and programmes. The United Nations Security Council has addressed issues related to natural resources and the environment in its resolutions more than 300 times (and counting). Peace agreements, which used to mention natural resources and the environment only occasionally, now do so regularly and in multiple ways. Post-conflict environmental assessments, often undertaken by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have become standard practice. For all the progress, however, it is important to note that all of these measures inject consideration of the environment into security concerns. More attention needs to be focused on the integration of peace and security into sustainable development.

War is development in reverse. To be effective, sustainable development must address conflict and promote peace.

The adoption of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16— “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development…”—was important for initially integrating peace into a United Nations-wide policy framework. Unlike the other SDGs, though, there are no meaningful targets or indicators to track progress towards a peaceful society. Some targets are relevant, notably “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere” (Target 16.1) and “significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows” (Target 16.4). In comparison to the detailed targets and indicators for gender equality (SDG 5), clean water (SDG 6) and even justice (part of SDG 16), the targets and indicators related to “peaceful” societies are notably absent.

The Stockholm+50 conference will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which launched the global environmental movement and led to the creation of UNEP. This high-level meeting will be held from 2 to 3 June 2022 and provide a unique opportunity to celebrate progress and map out the future of environmental action. In addition to whatever political declarations come from the meeting, it will also serve as a platform and springboard for United Nations Member States, agencies and other partners to begin to articulate a more inclusive and effective framework for sustainable development.

Since the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, sustainable development has often been viewed as a three-legged stool comprising environmental, economic and social elements. SDG 16 presumed to add a fourth leg—peace—and Stockholm+50 provides an opportunity to expand on that initial framing. Further targets and indicators are a starting point but no more than that.

We need to be willing to address peace and sustainable development more directly to understand the linkages and where it may be appropriate to act on them. This is not as easy as it sounds.

First, we need to better understand the linkages between peace, conflict and sustainable development. The 2011 World Development Report was instrumental in identifying many of these linkages, and we have continued to investigate the related dynamics. While we have gained a better understanding of the problems, there is still much to learn, particularly regarding which solutions are effective under what circumstances.

Second, we need to be willing to act. There is a widespread reluctance on the part of many environmentalists to incorporate considerations of peace and security into their work. There is fear that if the environment is “securitized”, countries may be compelled to act militarily in spheres they do not understand. At the international level, “securitizing” environmental concerns could provide the Security Council with a justification to become involved in what many countries regard as their internal, sovereign affairs. Given these concerns, the existence of SDG 16 is a minor miracle. 

Figure 1, provided by author.

Notwithstanding the politics, there is a robust body of evidence and scientific understanding regarding the numerous ways in which environment, conflict and peace are interlinked. There are political economy dimensions, particularly with regard to valuable resources. There are identity dimensions, particularly concerning land and territory. There are also historical and structural dimensions, which can be related to the legacies of colonialism. As the science of these realities grows stronger, policy and action must follow.

Recognizing the linkages between sustainable development and peace does not mean that all things related to development become security matters.

The development of conflict-sensitive approaches highlights how sustainable development can be made more effective through a consideration of peace and security. A 2020 evaluation of programming by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in fragile and conflict-affected situations is illustrative. A substantial portion of the 4000+ GEF environmental projects have been undertaken in situations affected by fragility and conflict. More than $4 billion in GEF funding (about 30 percent) has been spent in countries affected by armed conflicts with more than 1,000 battle deaths; and 88 percent of the country-level GEF projects were launched in fragile situations categorized as “alert” (i.e., very fragile) or “warning” (i.e., of concern).1 Fragile and conflict contexts had statistically significant impacts on the outcome of projects.

It is notable that at the time of the evaluation, GEF had no policies, guidance or safeguards addressing conflict or fragility. Instead, such considerations were left to implementing agencies. However, only half of them had policies regarding conflict-sensitive programming.

Notwithstanding the limited guidance on conflict sensitivity, GEF projects have innovated and employed five conflict-sensitive strategies to manage risks posed by conflict and fragility: acknowledgement, avoidance, risk mitigation, peacebuilding, and learning. The starting point is to acknowledge the presence of armed violence and insecurity in the project area, even if many such projects do not take the next step of attempting to manage the conflict-related risks. The remaining measures—other than acknowledgment—are aimed at managing  risks associated with conflict and fragility (see Figure 1, above).

As the figure shows, many GEF-supported projects both acknowledge risks associated with conflict and fragility and propose measures to manage those risks. To reduce conflict-related risks, some project leaders chose areas that were unaffected by conflict. This reduces the risks but leaves the areas most needing assistance without due attention. Other projects employed mitigation strategies such as participatory approaches and early warning. Some projects actively embraced the peacebuilding opportunities presented by the conflict situation, often to generate political support for the project (e.g., by supporting implementation of the peace agreement in Colombia in 2016). Many GEF projects incorporate lessons learned both from their own experiences and from other programming.

In most cases, conflict-sensitive conservation programming does not change the mission of environmental organizations. Instead, conflict sensitivity is viewed as a way to minimize the risks associated with conflict and maximize opportunities. Conflict-sensitive conservation projects are more likely to succeed in meeting their objectives. As such, conflict sensitivity illustrates how sustainable development can integrate consideration of conflict and peace without securitizing development. 

Stockholm+50 provides a point of inflection where the international community can reflect on what we have achieved and learned, and strategically map the way forward. Sustainable peace and a sustainable environment must be central to any vision for sustainable development, if it is to be truly sustainable. Achieving this vision will require further integration of United Nations agencies, funds and programmes working for peace and sustainable development.


1 Global Environmental Facility, “Evaluation of GEF support in fragile and conflict-affected situation”, prepared by the Independent Evaluation Office of the GEF, virtual meeting, 7-10 December 2020, p. vii. Available at https://bit.ly/3q6C8P3.