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DSG/SM/847-ENV/DEV/1488
19 February 2015

Natural Resources Need Not, Should Not Lead to Conflict, Deputy Secretary-General Stresses at Launch of Guide for Mediation Practitioners

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s remarks at the launch of Natural Resources and Conflict:  A Guide for Mediation Practitioners, in New York today:

First of all, let me thank the Permanent Missions of Finland and Belgium for organizing today’s event and the International Peace Institute for hosting it.

The Department of Political Affairs and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have produced an important and timely new publication, Natural Resources and Conflict:  A Guide for Mediation Practitioners.  I am glad you highlight it at this meeting.

Over the coming decades, competition over natural resources is bound to increase.  Populations are growing.  More people are enjoying higher standards of living.  We are consuming more energy and other resources.  Demand for freshwater is expected to increase by more than 50 per cent by 2050.

At the same time, climate change and environmental degradation are exerting increasing pressure on the resource base — especially water.

Where political tensions already exist, resources can be a driver of conflict — especially where local communities fail to share the benefits of resource exploitation.

This publication, this guide, cites numerous examples of resource-driven crises.  Resources can even be used as a weapon of war.  I have seen this for myself in Darfur, where wells were poisoned to drive people from their villages to the IDP [internally displaced person] camps.  I was at the time working closely with Mr. Pekka Haavisto, who was then the European Union Special Representative for Sudan.

More recently, water supply to Aleppo, in Syria, was cut off in both regime and opposition-held areas.

And the threat of withholding energy supplies, such as natural gas or oil, can influence the geopolitical landscape.  It is no surprise, then, that half of all civil wars in the past six decades have been associated with natural resources — and the power and wealth they generate.

Since 1990, at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by resource disputes.  That is one of the reasons why many now talk about the so-called “resource curse”.  The positive resource asset becomes a conflict liability.

But, I believe — and I think this publication shows — that natural resources need not, and should not, lead to conflict.  The root causes of conflict relate largely to poor governance, failure to distribute benefits, as well as to human rights violations and environmental degradation.

When access to resources and their benefits is equitable, then resources can be a catalyst for cooperation.  We have to work to make scarcity of resources a reason for cooperation, not for conflict.  We have to prove the win-win proposition in sharing resources and negotiated solutions.

We see this very clearly in the case of water.  Over 90 per cent of the world's people live in countries that share rivers and/or lake basins.  The 148 countries that share at least one transboundary river basin have had to share and manage their joint resources for a long time.  Almost 450 agreements on international waters were signed between 1820 and 2007.  Almost always, shared water has led to cooperation, not conflict.

The 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has survived three wars and remains in force today.  Lake Titicaca has long been an area of cooperation between Bolivia and Peru.  And water has been one area of the Middle East Peace Process where cooperation in some cases, not all, has been possible, even when political dialogue had broken down.  Still, much work remains in sharing water between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank.

That is why I have long been a strong advocate of developing “hydro-diplomacy”.

I believe that water can play an important role as a source of cooperation and conflict resolution, helping parties coexist and share resources peacefully, and I believe this extends to other resources if they are to be managed well.

We now know more about the elements of good governance that need to be in place.  We need proper planning, and transparency linked to resource contracts, payments, revenues and impacts.  We need equitable sharing of benefits, public participation and consultation in key decision-making.  And we need access to justice and credible dispute resolution mechanisms to prevent conflicts from escalating.

If all these tools are used, communities and countries can capitalize on the opportunities, rather than the risks, presented by natural resources.  The guide being launched today is aimed at promoting cooperation and collaboration around natural resources.

It presents mediation as a vital tool for finding options that yield mutual gain.  I many times remind my colleagues about Article 33 of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, “Pacific Settlement of Disputes”, which is ever more relevant and needed in today’s world.

Mediation is fundamentally collaborative and non-adversarial.  It is a voluntary endeavour in which the consent of the parties is critical for a viable process and a durable outcome.

Mediation over natural resources can help lay the ground for building constructive relations across ethnic, national or regional divides.

The examples in the guide illustrate the importance of resources as incentives for negotiation.  For instance, we see the role played by oil and natural gas in the context of the conflict in Aceh, in Indonesia.  We have also seen the role of oil as a potential incentive for peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan.

The purpose of this guide is to encourage mediation to be used more often to avoid conflicts associated with natural resources.   The Guide distils decades of experience in natural resources dispute resolution into succinct and practical advice.

I recommend this publication to all mediation practitioners and also to parties to disputes where natural resources are a feature.  I expect it to become an essential part of the United Nations mediation tool-box.

I believe today’s discussion can serve to raise the issue of resource mediation to the conceptual and political level it deserves.

For information media. Not an official record.