Searching for environmental justice in peacebuilding – Tools offered by international environmental law

By: Britta Sjöstedt

In this piece, I explore the notion of environmental justice by looking at international environmental law and how it pertains to peacebuilding. Environmental degradation resulting from armed conflict and/or institutional collapse, disputes over land rights and management over ‘conflict resources’ must be dealt with in a just and fair manner to build positive peace. For this reason, there is a growing advocacy on how environmental justice can be applied to pave the way to sustainable peace. For instance, such advocacy can involve pushing for local communities’ participation in decision-making related to environmental matters; undertaking proper measure to clear areas contaminated with explosive remnants from the hostilities; restoring access to safe drinking water etc. The notion of environmental justice is however multifaceted and lacks a universal definition. Its meaning changes depending on place, period, and perspective. For instance, in the US, it referred to exposing racism in the allocation of waste and linking environmental justice to citizens’ rights, while in Latin America, it has been related to social movements showing the unequal exchange between the Global South and North in resource exploitation, extractives and destruction of local livelihoods. Thus, environmental justice must be regarded as something relative that has diverse meanings to different communities, societies and institutions. Environmental justice is not a purely legal concept. It goes beyond law, having also moral, philosophical and political underpinnings. Just as the notion of justice is fluid and relative, as there is no such a thing as absolute justice, the same goes for environmental justice. The law should be viewed as merely a compromise of different understandings of justice. Yet, a legal system must be perceived as fair and just to maintain its legitimacy and authority. This is especially important in post-conflict contexts where parallel, informal justice systems can otherwise develop and compete with the legal system, which endanger predictability and trust in the law. Such a development entails a risk of destabilising an already fragile peace. International environmental law can shed some light on the content of environmental justice, especially in terms of environmental peacebuilding.

The term ‘environmental justice’ has its roots from an American movement in the 1980s protesting the placing of hazardous waste sites and other environmentally toxic facilities in poor black communities. In this case, environmental injustice describes how members of disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionately from environmental risks and degradation. Today, the notion of environmental justice hosts a broader set of meanings going beyond environmental degradation and social fairness. Environmental justice usually evolves around differences in how people and/or communities are adversely affected by environmental risks or pollutions, uneven distribution of natural resources and lack of access to justice regarding environmental matters. On an international level, environmental justice between states focuses on geopolitical tensions, for instance, how environmental harm has more serious consequences in the poorest regions in the world. For instance, the effects of climate change are likely to affect severely and disproportionately developing states that are particularly vulnerable to such effects. At the same time, developed states have greater financial and technical capability to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and to adapt to and diminish impacts resulting from climate change.

Environmental justice is commonly described as dealing with three kinds of concerns: distribution, procedure and recognition. Distributive justice relates to equal distribution of wealth and income from environmental resources, but also for carrying the burden of preventing and repairing environmental degradation in accordance with capacity and responsibility. Procedural justice concerns rights to access to information and participate in environmental decision-making. This is to make sure that those affected by the decisions also have influence during the decision-making process. The third kind relates to the respect for identities and cultural difference. It serves to ensure that local cultures, knowledge and ideas are valued in intercultural engagement. All these concerns of environmental justice are incorporated in international environmental law.

One of the most influential instruments in creating and shaping international environmental law is the 1992 Rio Declaration. In this instrument, there are mainly three principles expressing aspects of environmental justice: Principle 7 stating the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities; Principle 10 dealing with access to environmental justice; and Principle 22 acknowledging the role of indigenous people and their communities as well as other local communities in environmental management and development. The Rio Declaration is not binding as such; nevertheless, many of its principles reflect the content of international environmental customary law, which is binding for all states. Aspects of the principles just mentioned have also been expressed in several binding environmental agreements. In addition, specifically in regard to peacebuilding, Principle 25 in the Rio declaration highlights how peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible.

The principle or the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities captures partly the essence of distributive environmental justice. It provides for states to contribute differently to prevent and mitigate environmental degradation depending on their capability as well as their responsibilities. To achieve an equitable distribution of the burdens to safeguard the environment, various environmental agreements have established financial mechanisms, expressed exemptions, and included provisions for transfer of technology and flexibility in the times required for compliance with international environmental obligations to benefit developing states. At the same time, developed states should take a greater responsibility than developing states to pay for past, present and future harms to the environment. Developed states should also transfer technology and invest in capacity building for developing states to assist them in complying with environmental obligations. This is due both to the larger capacity of developed states but also because they bear historically a greater responsibility for the current state of the environment. In the context of peacebuilding, this principle provides a framework to force other states to assist war-torn developing states under environmental stress. It provides for that developed states are under an obligation to provide technical, financial and other types of assistance to safeguard the environment, particularly in fragile states struggling to build an environmentally sound peace.

Different paths are possible when working towards environmental justice.

In relation to the procedural environmental justice, Principle 10 in the Rio Declaration ensures that individuals have rights to access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, and the opportunity to participate in environmental decision-making. According to this principle, states have an obligation to facilitate public awareness by making information on environmental matters widely available. In addition, states are obligated under the same principle to provide effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including means of reparations and compensations. Similar rights can also be found in international human rights law instruments. In a peacebuilding process, international law provides for procedural environmental justice that can be applied to ensure access to information and public participation of local communities and individuals in decision-making in relation to the environment. Decisions on environmental management and allocation of natural resources should be invoked in this context in accordance with the law to provide procedural equity through decision-making with the participation of those affected. If such procedures are correctly incorporated, it will empower local communities in a peace process aiming at producing outcomes that treat all affected groups fairly in matters regarding land rights, exploitation of natural resources and environmental investments or risks. However, just because the principle exists in international law, it does not necessary mean that it is respected and enforced, especially in situations of post-conflict where the state may be facing problems to uphold its state functions and institutions. Still, the principle conveys an important message to all actors – internal as well as external – involved in the peace process to not bypass communities affected by environmental matters and an obligation to ensure them influence and access to justice. Even though the primary subjects of international law are the states, even private actors may be forced to comply with this principle depending on how well it has been implemented in national legislation of the post-conflict state or actors’ home state or due to voluntary measures initiated by the industry or international organisations.

Regarding the concern for recognition, Principle 22 in the Rio Declaration expresses that states should recognise and support indigenous and other communities, their identity, culture and interests. Furthermore, it calls for adopting means to enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development. This includes respect of their traditional knowledge and practices in relation to environmental management. There are many examples on how indigenous peoples have suffered from conservation policies, in particular in states affected by armed conflicts including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, Colombia. States are under an international obligation to recognise indigenous peoples and to provide for appropriate procedures and institutions for indigenous peoples facilitate the respect for cultural differences. The environmental justice concern for recognising cultural identity both ensures rights for indigenous peoples to occupy and exploit their ancestral land as well as rights of varying degrees to participate and influence in matters regarding the land. As indigenous territories are usually rich in biological diversity and valuable natural resources, in many war-torn states, hostilities often takes place in these remote and biodiversity rich areas having severe impacts on indigenous peoples. In addition, when peace has been established, vulnerable indigenous communities can be marginalised if they are not recognised in the peacebuilding activities. The rights of the indigenous and other local communities expressed in international environmental law and human rights law are essential in a peace process to ensure social inclusion of different cultures.

To summarise, international environmental law does not provide a clear-cut solution on how to achieve environmental justice in post-conflict. However, it provides tools to address environmental entitlements, human vulnerability, and management of natural resources, which are all pressing concerns in a peacebuilding process. It contributes to stress the responsibility of states to equally distribute environmental risks and hazards as well as investments, benefits and natural resources. Also, the law ensures access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice in all environmental matters and to recognise different cultural identities, ideas and practice. For that reason, international environmental law is a good starting point of how to build sustainable peace in an environmentally just manner. However, to fully understand the meaning and implications of environmental justice, the notion needs to be approached from other disciplines as well.


Working towards Paradise; Environmental peacebuilding in practice, part 1

By Joshka Wessels

Our Theme Nature of Peace explores links between the natural environment and peacebuilding in post armed-conflict societies. This is a blogpost in two parts with some reflections on environmental peacebuilding, based on my experience doing postdoctoral research on this topic and a documentary that I produced about environmental cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in 2010.

PART 1: Theories of Environmental Peacebuilding

Our main question at Nature of Peace, investigates what role the natural environment can play in post-conflict peacebuilding. In each armed conflict on our planet, environmental dimensions, effects and causes can be identified (Homer-Dixon, 1999).  Often these are an integral part of a plethora of political, psychological, cultural and territorial dimensions of armed conflicts. Exploring the linkages between humans and their environment has a long history in both the social and the biophysical sciences but the potential of a shared environment for peace building is a relatively under researched area. The empirical body at local level is actually quite slim. There is not a lot of extensive data on how and if the environment enhances cooperation between adversaries, after an armed conflict. Several interdisciplinary academic fields are working within our main Theme question, such as the upcoming fields of warfare ecology (Machlis et al. , 2011),  environmental politics, political ecology and environmental peacemaking (Waisová 2017; Dresse et al., 2016; Carius, 2007; Conca and Dabelko, 2002), which are all areas and fields of social and physical science research investigating the environmental dimensions to armed and unarmed conflicts.

Nature and the environment are often neglected in peace treaties or regarded as lower priorities in conventional and (neo)liberal peace building efforts. In any case, the environment is not a priority in peace negotiations or ceasefire agreements. Liberal and neoliberal peacebuilding, influenced by rational choice theory and a Western-centric approach to peace, often focuses on the economic and state building benefits, the ”Victor’s peace”, the institutional peace, the constitutional peace and the goal of state building (Richmond 2010, 2008; Rittberger and Fischer, 2008). Conventional approaches to peacebuilding are much less concerned with inclusion of nature or ecosystem services in peacebuilding. Environmental or ecological peacebuilding is also outside of the spotlights of mainstream media covering peace building initiatives. Therefore, in order to include nature in peace, there is a need for a paradigm shift from conventional peacebuilding principles to a more holistic approach. This is where we can find the concept of environmental peacebuilding (Carius, 2007; Conca and Dabelko, 2002).

Initially coined as environmental peacemaking, over the past twenty years, several research projects and inititatives developed an approach that takes the sharing of natural resources and environmental cooperation as a tool for conflict resolution (Waisová 2017; Conca and Dabelko, 2002) The concept of environmental peacebuilding is based on a more holistic approach to peacemaking; for this approach of peace building, there are no “war heroes”, there are “peace heroes” (Wessels, 2009).  Whilst liberal peace building and rational choice tend to ignore biological, psychological, cultural and sociological dimensions of violence and conflict, environmental peace building gives room for holistic and cognitive theories on the relationships between Humanity and Nature in a changing global ecosystem (Wessels, 2016).

Not only conventional peacebuilding needs a paradigm shift, but also conventional approaches towards ecosystems should change, as they fail to account how environmental peacebuilding could work in practice. In the conventional approach to ecosystems, within conservation sciences, places human beings outside of nature and views human activities as ”anthropogenic disturbances”. Human beings are seen as dominating species over other non-human living beings and the flora with an overwhelming negative effect on the natural environment. A less anthropocentric approach includes human beings as integral part of the ecosystem, applying the so-called Human Ecosystem Model to human-natural systems (Dalton, 2011; Wessels, 2008). In the Human Ecosystem approach, activities by human beings can have negative effects (war), also called anthropogenic disturbances on the natural environment, whilst at the same time there is the possibility that their activities can have positive effects (peace) and contribute to a sustainable and balance of the natural environment.

In this regard, it is interesting to look at anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ theories of culture. Geertz defined culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz, 1973). When local cultures, religions or ideologies of a particular society are heavily influenced by the worship of nature and the “dreamed-of order” of a “human ecological paradise”, there is a suggested tendency of members and religious leaders of that society to work together to reach that ecological paradise. This perceived human ecological paradise could form common ground between environmentalists and farmers sharing an ecosystem. Any destruction to that perceived ecological paradise is considered a threat and unites those opposed to this threat in their struggle to preserve the environment. This is the core principle of environmental and ecological peace building. Thick descriptions of specific case studies of ecological peace building provide then an insight in the human cognitive processes of environmental peace building (Wessels, 2016).

Our shared natural environment can thus form a positive incentive for enemies to cooperate to achieve the dreamed-of order of an ”ecological paradise” whereby human beings have the right to healthy and sustainable environment, of being at peace with nature, which constitutes a process of healing and the achievement of an, almost religious, “inner-peace”. Geertz’ symbolic anthropology, where the role of symbols in constructing culture and public meaning is emphasized, describes the “dreamed-of order” (Geertz, 1973). Ecological peacebuilding is thus like ”working towards paradise” based on the principle that a balanced human ecosystem with fair distribution of natural resources, leads to a societal and balanced  ”dreamed-of order” of peace, democracy and a sustainable natural environment.


Theories of environmental peacebuilding come from a variety of different disciplines within the social and biophysical sciences. I argue that in order to come to a comprehensive theory of environmental peacebuilding, there is a need to two paradigm shifts; 1) one in peace and conflict studies, from the liberal peacebuilding to a more holistic approach and 2) one in conservation sciences, from a conventional anthropocentric ecosystem approach to a Human Ecosystem approach, whereby human beings are integral part of the natural environment, linking the biophysical, terrestrial, physical, cultural and socio-economic components of the environment. The example of Wadi Fukin within the Jordan River Basin was taken as point in case for the potential of environmental peacebuilding. Combined with Geertz’ definition of culture as a ”dreamed-of order”, environmental peacebuilding in practice can be seen as working towards a shared vision of an ”ecological paradise”.

In the next part of this two-part series, I will illustrate how environmental peacebuilding works in practice in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt)


This blogpost is partly based on a bookchapter published earlier last year; Wessels, J.I. (2016) “Valleys of Hope and Despair; peace building through independent environmental documentaries” in Mediating Peace, Reconciliation through Visual Art, Music and Film by Sebastian Kim, Pauline Kollontai & Sue Yore (eds.), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK. ISBN (10): 1-4438-8371-9 ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-8371-9.