Ken Conca is professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University. His teaching and research focus on global environmental governance, water politics and policy, and environment, conflict and peacebuilding. He is the author/editor of several books, including Governing Water, Environmental Peacemaking, Confronting Consumption, The Crisis of Global Environmental Governance, The State and Social Power in Global Environmental Politics, and the forthcoming An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford University Press, 2015).
UNEP, Tour Mirabeau, Paris | Attribution: Hugo, 1 Oct 2007, Photo Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.
Effective responses to global environmental problems require a strong role for the United Nations. For all its flaws, the UN remains the only plausible forum for engaging broadly global challenges. It is the only venue in which a sufficiently wide range of voices may be heard as we seek to forge a robust consensus on difficult environmental problems. It has been the most important catalyst for negotiating international environmental agreements among nations, and the most important focal point for disseminating new ideas and practices for better environmental stewardship. Indeed, the most important environmental accomplishments of the past forty years—the rise of global environmental awareness, the birth of key ideas such as sustainability, and negotiation of several important treaties for environmental protection—all bear the UN stamp in one way or another.
Yet, accomplishments notwithstanding, the UN record on the environment contains far too many examples of failure, inaction, and disappointment. The fabric of international environmental law, though not entirely threadbare, contains too many tears and missing strands. Progress on sustainable development has been uneven, to put it charitably. The UN Environment Programme, which exists in theory to coordinate and catalyze UN activities on the issue, has the annual budget of a small liberal arts college. The UN’s “Rio+20” environmental summit of 2012 epitomized the growing drift and political stagnation, with governments unable to agree on any of the key agenda items: the pathway to a “green economy”, institutional reform of the UN’s environmental activities, the structure of a high-level body to replace the ineffectual Commission on Sustainable Development, a governing framework to protect the world’s oceans, or the content of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals. On the eve of the meeting, most of the proposed language for the summit’s outcome document remained contested. The resulting text, titled “The Future We Want,” was a jumbled amalgam of past commitments and vague ambitions. Gro Brundtland, who three decades earlier had chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development and its path-breaking report, Our Common Future, found the product wanting: “We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points, as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities. These are the facts – but they have been lost in the final document.”[ii] A prominent activist, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, put it more succinctly, tweeting “longest suicide note in history.”[iii]
The causes for this state of affairs are many: low funding levels, poor administrative coordination, lack of political will from important member-states, powerful resistance from actors who benefit from environmental degradation, global financial instability, and the sheer scope of the planet’s challenges. A less noticed but no less important problem, however, is paradigmatic: the UN has institutionalized a highly selective approach to environmental challenges—one that defines the task too narrowly, fails to connect it to key parts of the organization’s mission, and leaves unused some of the UN’s most important tools.
The UN Charter sets out powerful aspirations for the world’s nations and peoples. The charter mandates the global organization to pursue a four-part mission of international peace and security (“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”), human rights (“the dignity and worth of the human person”), international law (“respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law”) and development (“social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”). When it comes to the environment, however, the UN approach engages only some of those aspirations. Virtually all of the efforts, programs and initiatives reside in two of the aforementioned mandate domains: international law, in the form of treaties codifying issue-specific environmental regimes; and development, following the Brundtland Commission’s famous definition of sustainable development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[iv] The UN’s grand strategy for global environmental governance is, essentially, to seek better law between nations and better development within them.
But the Charter of the United Nations stands on four legs, not two. The UN approach has, for the most part, failed to see environmental problems as matters of peace and international security or as a core component of human rights. Thus, while the Economic and Social Council is deeply immersed in environmental matters, the Security Council almost never addresses environmental issues—and when it does, much of the discussion is spent questioning why a “development” and “legal” matter has been brought before the Council in the first place. Environmental treaties occupy significant time and attention from member-states—while the other great body of international law for which the UN is chiefly responsible, the law of human rights, has had almost nothing to say about the environment. Rio+20 was silent on whether there exists a human right to a safe and healthy environment, or on the links between human rights and sustainability, or on what a rights-based approach to building a green economy would look like. This silence came despite a terse letter from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to member-states shortly before the meeting, warning of rights-related flaws in the negotiating text and pleading that the conferees “fully integrate key human rights considerations.”[v] As with rights, so with peace: the assembled governments had nothing to say about violent conflict over natural resources, the environmental toll of war, or how to tap the peacebuilding opportunities inherent in cooperative governance of natural resources.
This failure to see our planetary challenges as matters of peace and human rights, or to use the tools of those mandate domains, has profound consequences. It prevents the UN from making progress on several of today’s thorniest environmental problems—including climate change, the loss of the world’s forests, water resources management, and the control of toxic pollution. Worse, it simultaneously undercuts efforts to achieve peace and strengthen human rights. Environmental degradation and natural resource plunder are part and parcel of a wide swath of conflict episodes and human rights abuses. Failure to see and address these problems in those terms undermines the entirety of the UN’s four-part mission.
Why pay greater attention to the peace-and-rights dimensions of environmental problems? One reason is to break the cycle of vulnerability. For far too many of the world’s peoples, environmental degradation, conflict, and economic marginalization interact to create downward spirals that repeatedly undermine human security and defeat efforts for human development. Peace is critical to breaking out of this downward spiral, because conflict undercuts efforts for sustainable development and increases the risks associated with disasters and extreme events. Conflict also undercuts a nation’s capacity to comply with its international environmental commitments and responsibilities, causing local consequences to reverberate globally. Natural resources can be a key element in sustained or recurrent episodes of violent conflict; thus, conflict-sensitive resource management is crucial to breaking the cycle.
Human rights, too, are crucial to breaking the cycle. Rights-based approaches make it possible to secure access to livelihood resources, while protecting those resources from ill-conceived schemes for economic development. A large body of evidence shows that environmental protection works best when citizens’ procedural rights have real meaning in the corridors of environmental policy, municipal planning, and economic development.[vi] Rights are also crucial to fending off dubious approaches to environmental protection, which too often seek to accomplish abstract global aims at great local expense—yielding neither effective environmental protection nor social justice. Global recognition of human rights to breathable air and drinkable water can also empower “naming and shaming” campaigns to hold governments accountable for rhetorical commitments they make in international forums.
A second reason to bring peace and human rights on board in environmental efforts is the important regulatory and accountability functions they can play. The ability of citizens to press rights-based claims is a critical tool to thwart destructive agendas that undercut the common good. This fact is well recognized in local terms, but in a globalized world economy it must also be applied to the global chains of production that snake across national borders, beyond the regulatory reach of individual nation-states. Too often, harmful activities hide in the unregulated space between national laws and global agreements, beyond the reach of either. Despite early optimism that market-based forces such as green product certification could fill the gap, it is increasingly clear that socially responsible shopping is no substitute for strong protections at the source of the problem. Without global recognition of those protections as human rights, there will always be another neighborhood—and another country—onto which the harmful effects can be externalized, exported, and dumped. Conflict is also a central element in this equation, because the lawlessness and impunity surrounding the production of “conflict resources” for global markets is an extreme, and all too common, example of the larger problem.
A third reason why environmental efforts must become more peace-centered and rights-centered is the opportunity for positive synergies. Environmental protection is well recognized as a public good, but we tend to view the nature of that good narrowly in terms of welfare gains. Designed properly, environmental cooperation can also have strong confidence-building and trust-enhancing benefits. Such initiatives, often referred to as environmental peacebuilding, afford governments with an opportunity to transcend the zero-sum mentality of scarcity around shared resources and realize powerful shared gains through more effective cooperation.[vii] More broadly, designing environmental initiatives to be more conflict-sensitive, peace-enhancing and rights-affirming can be a powerful tool in replacing the destructive downward spirals flagged earlier with upward-trending positive synergies.
A final reason to engage the full force of the UN’s four-part mandate in environmental efforts is the often-invoked concept of a “system-wide” UN response. In UN parlance, the term means mobilizing all parts of the UN system to achieve an overarching goal. The importance of doing so is widely noted in UN circles, and has become a central theme in the debate about how to overcome fragmentation and promote effective reforms.[viii] Currently, the absence of the peace-and-rights parts of the UN system from the conversation means that “system-wide” environmental efforts are limited to tepid initiatives such as the “Greening the Blue” campaign to improve the UN’s environmental footprint. Worse, the current state of affairs creates opportunities for governments to play a cynical game of venue-shifting and self-contradiction. Thus, the United States can fail to acknowledge its substantial responsibility for climate change and shed commitments it made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—but then laud the very same UNFCCC as the proper venue when trying to keep environmental human rights off the radar of the UN Human Rights Council. Or, China can warn the Security Council not to butt into the sensitive negotiations of the UNFCCC process, only to prove quite ready to abandon that process for a side deal with the US at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks. Until the environment resonates across the full scope of the UN mandate, a truly system-wide response remains impossible—and this sort of ducking, dodging and venue-shifting will remain the norm across the fragmented institutional landscape.
How can the UN’s environmental efforts be transformed along the lines suggested by this argument? Doing so means making those efforts rights-based, accountability-oriented, conflict-sensitive, and peace-enhancing. There are pockets within the UN where connections between the environmental agenda, human rights, and peace and security are already being made: in the highlighting of climate change as a human rights issue by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; in the work of the Human Rights Council’s special expert on environmental human rights; in the way small-island developing states have challenged the Security Council to see climate change as a threat to their survival; in the work UN-Women has done on the links between natural resource management and the circumstances of women in war-torn societies; and in the “environmental peacebuilding” initiatives of the UN Environment Programme and other organs. To fully tap the synergies, however, a more ambitious reform agenda is required:
- Find an explicit human right to a safe and healthy environment. It is time for the Human Rights Council to act on this issue, which has been slowly grinding its way through the UN’s human-rights machinery since the early 1990s.
- Acknowledge an environmental “responsibility to protect”. The UN has acknowledged that the international system has duties when a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Environmental challenges are quite different—yet, as climate change drives rising sea levels and increases the risks from extreme weather, pressures will only intensify on the UN system to resolve the ambiguity of the legal and moral questions surrounding how to protect people from these consequences.
- Find a legitimate–and limited–environmental role for the UN Security Council. The Council will never be (and should not be) the primary venue for environmental matters in the UN system. But the Council is woefully under-equipped to understand how climate change, water scarcity, and natural-resource conflicts are affecting its peacekeeping and other operations. And it can play an important agenda-setting function at a time when global environmental diplomacy has faltered, reminding the world that strengthened environmental cooperation is urgently needed for there to be international peace and security.
- Exploit opportunities for environmental peacebuilding. Cooperation around shared resources and ecosystems can, if properly managed, heal wounds, build trust, create shared benefits, and perhaps even begin to forge elements of shared identity. Such initiatives are an important alternative to “securitization” of the environmental issue, which risks bringing the wrong actors to the table and reinforcing a zero-sum mentality rather than a cooperative ethos. The UN’s post-conflict recovery activities are a natural setting for such efforts, but it is crucial that they also be extended upstream to include preventive efforts—for example, strengthening the transparent, equitable, and sustainable governance of natural resources as a way to head off conflict risks.
- Infuse the law-and-development approach with stronger peace-and-rights practice. International recognition of procedural rights to environmental information, participation in decision forums, and redress of grievances must be strengthened. Ongoing efforts to craft international environmental law, including the climate talks and various sets of negotiations around shared river basins, need a strong infusion of rights-based provisions, as well as stronger and more legitimate conflict-resolution mechanisms. The same is true of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Fostering better law between nations and better development within them is surely part of the task of global environmental governance. But using the tools of human rights and peacebuilding—thus bringing to bear the full scope of the UN mandate—is just as important.
New York – United Nations “No Guns,” | Attribution: David Paul Ohmer 28 Oct 2008, Photo Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.
[i] This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book An Unfinished Foundation; The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford University Press, 2015).
[ii] Thalif Deen, “RIO+20: Promised Green Economy Was a Fake, Say Activists.” Inter Press Service News Agency, June 22, 2012. Available at http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/06/rio20-promised-green-economy-was-a-fake-say-activists/, viewed 1 December 2014.
[iv] World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
[v] Open letter of Navanethem Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, to UN member-states, 30 March 2012.
[vi] World Resources Institute, Closing the Gap: Information, Participation, and Justice in Decision-making for the Environment (Washington, DC: WRI, 2002).
[vii] Ken Conca and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, eds., Environmental Peacemaking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002).
[viii] See United Nations, Delivering as One: Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on UN System-wide Coherence in the Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance, and the Environment, 9 November 2006.