Lawyers and social scientists alike have for a number of years agreed that environmental conditions and scarcity of natural resources have the potential to act as a catalyst for armed conflicts. Such assertions have strengthened the normative link between environmental law and the law governing armed conflicts on a general level. This linking is already recognised, in general, in the area of international law of armed conflicts, which, inter alia, lays down that the methods and means of warfare are not limited; and in particular in the international law of armed conflicts which provides for the protection of the environment during hostilities such as Articles 35(3) and 55 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva convention.
In addition to this “environmental-armed-conflict-law”, considering the state of the environment as a cause of armed conflict has gathered consensus among policy-makers, diplomats and academics. This was most recently recognised when Al Gore, together with the IPCC, was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Similarly, conflicts like the one taking place in the Dafur region of Sudan is cited alongside the conflict in Somalia as examples of cases where scarcity of natural resources has lead to conflicts.
However, such claims have been questioned in a recent study carried out at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU). The researches at NTNU argue that countries where natural resources are most heavily exploited are often the ones most likely to enjoy peace. They base their examination of exploitation of natural resources on the Ecological Footprint (EF) at country level and compare this to data on armed conflicts. Thus, an increase in the EF of a given country will often mean that the country is equally likely to be more peaceful, according to the NTNU team. In this light, the findings might not appear all that surprising. After all, the EF is a measure of consumption. Therefore, it is not surprising that countries with high consumption – the developed countries – are more likely to experience peace. On this account, the study would appear to confirm what most would consider common knowledge; namely that armed conflicts mainly occur in less-developed countries or countries in economic transition. The same countries that have lower EFs.
On a general level, it would thus appear that one can say little as to whether exploitation of natural resources lead to armed conflicts in light if the research. The case might be that it does so in certain areas and do not in others. There certainly seem to be a case for linking exploitation of natural resources to human rights violation in certain countries. However, the NTNU authors rightly point out that developed countries should fine it in their own interest to promote peace through the transfer of aid and technology to less-developed countries. Something that the developed world could perhaps have emphasised stronger at last week’s Bali negotiations and ought to keep in mind in their work towards the next climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.
You can read about the NTNU study here from Science Daily and in its full length in Population & Environment Vol. 28, No. 6, pp.337-353 (available through Springerlink).