The Environmental Impact of UN Peace Operations

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In recent years, United Nations peace operations have increasingly begun addressing environmental challenges related to their own impact and the conditions in which they operate. Missions, particularly large deployments in arid, land-locked countries, have considerable resource requirements and can cause significant, if unintended, environmental damage to countries the UN is seeking to assist.

To discuss this impact and the UN response, IPI launched a new report at an April 18th policy forum with the Permanent Missions of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Italy, and Finland. The report, Greening Peacekeeping: The Environmental Impact of UN Peace Operations, assesses the challenges that the Department of Field Support (DFS) faces in implementing its environment strategy. Looking at the UN policies, guidelines, and training material, it also provides recommendations for improving local environmental sustainability and building resilience.

In opening remarks, Kai Sauer, Permanent Representative of Finland to the UN, signaled that environmental challenges actually offer an opportunity for peacekeepers to engage more deeply with the populations they serve. “We can have a positive impact on the local communities by sharing our knowledge and culture on environmental sustainability and solutions,” he said. So, beyond their traditional role, peacekeepers “can also be building up the local capacity in environmental questions.”

Sebastiano Cardi, Permanent Representative of Italy to the UN, highlighted the new formation of a Group of Friends between Italy, Bangladesh, and Finland as leaders on environmental management in the field. Bangladesh and Italy, in particular, are large contributors to peacekeeping operations, ranked second and twentieth out of all troop and police-contributing countries, as of March 31. As such, he said, they have a pressing obligation to respond immediately to the environmental damage caused by missions.

In 2017, the UN Department of Field Support launched an environmental strategy to guide its field missions. Mr. Cardi said that a challenge to implementing new environmental initiatives is finding the balance between respecting a host country’s sovereignty and achieving the mandated goals of a mission.

As the UN is a field-oriented organization, he said, “It is therefore important that we get it right in terms of doing no harm to the territories and the people where the organization operates.” In addition, he made a call to action for peacekeeping missions to “leave whenever possible, a positive trace of the presence of the UN, not only in an environmental field, but, of course, in all other fields as well.”

Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General of the UN Department of Field Support, affirmed the value of holding a discussion with civil society on environmental management in peace operations. “It is very great that, for the first time, we are discussing a report on this issue by an entity external to the UN, that is, the IPI,” he said. “This, to my mind, bodes very well for greater interest in civil society for this issue.”

Member state contributions need not be technologically complex or expensive, he pointed out. “We think of solutions to environmental problems as engineering solutions…but sometimes even low-tech solutions are as good or perhaps better in dealing with environmental management than high-tech solutions,” he said.

Asked why environmental management was important, he answered, “Good environmental management actually contributes to peace and security.”

“If we do not do good environmental management, the chance of environmentally related crisis in the future in a country cannot be ruled out,” he said. “In order to avoid our inheritors, our children of today, blaming us for not having exercised due diligence, let us do it now.”

Lucile Maertens, who co-authored the report with Malkit Shoshan, is a lecturer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. “Environmental consequences can extend long after the mission is gone and can be irreversible,” she said. She urged that the environment “should not be considered as a secondary issue, but should be taken into account from the start while designing and deploying a mission.”

This is also a matter of accountability for the UN and its “legitimacy and credibility,” she added. For reform to be effective, policy and regulatory initiatives should not come solely from UN headquarters, but should rely mostly on local input, she said.

Ms. Shoshan, director of an architectural think tank, the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST), emphasized four main points from the publication. They were the spatial manifestation and footprint of peace operations, the role of global logistic chains in the politics of sourcing and procurement, the challenges and opportunities for the local community, and the value of an integrated approach, including the development of comprehensive indicators to insure a sustainable legacy with environmental concerns.

In 2016, she said, field missions were responsible for half of the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire UN system. The discrepancy between considering peace operations as short term activities and the time the missions truly last, she said, leads to an “extensive wasteful practice that has a protracted impact on the environment.”

In 2009, the global flow of commodities and expertise to peace operations grew exponentially. The scale and new basis in missions such as that in Mali, she explained, resulted in “excessive, wasteful practices that increase and solidify the inequality between the local situation and the global presence.”

Citing research from the report, she noted that scarcity and vulnerability often lie at the center of the conflict that the UN is there to resolve. Peacekeeping missions often enter complex and fragile ecosystems, where resources are scarce and the government is not responsive to the needs of its people. Pressures intensify as a result of climate change and population growth, and deployment of UN peace operations can add stress to ecosystems.

Peacekeepers are not trained in environmental and urban management, but through small-scale and “head-on” projects, they can identify opportunities to help provide access to clean water, food, and reduce their global footprint gradually, she said. And by locally sourcing both high and low-tech technologies, they can empower the populations of individual locations.

Annica Waleij, Senior Analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, remarked that reform will not happen immediately. “I commend [the report] for not shying away from acknowledging the fact that you have an organization with a lot of member states,” she said. “There’s a lot of different perspectives and interest, and it’s sometimes very hard to reach consensus. So naturally it takes time. You have to be very persistent.”

Tareq Md. Ariful Islam, Deputy Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, reflected on the obstacles to environmental reform in closing remarks. “The question of enhancing human and financial resources for implementing the environmental strategy would perhaps be the most challenging part,” he said. For these recommendations to succeed, he said, “Environmental management…has to get the political support that it needs.”

Jake Sherman, IPI Director of the Brian Urquhart Center on Peace Operations, moderated.