Gristmill contributor Geoff Dabelko, who’s having a little trouble with the posting widget, sent this to me, and I’m passing it along to you.  Enjoy:

A couple years back the U.N. General Assembly declared today [ed.: yesterday], November 6, to be International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.  

In resolution 56/4 [PDF], the U.N. called attention to the often long-lasting damage done to the natural environment done in times of conflict.

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Having a special day for an issue is great, but what is the U.N. really doing about environmental security links on the ground?High profile topics these days include the contentious debates about depleted uranium from high-tech munitions left on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans. In high-profile efforts to reverse a destroyed ecosystem, international donors are atwitter about restoring the Mesopotamian Marshlands that Saddam Hussein systematically drained as punishment of the Marsh Arabs who rose up against him in the wake of the Gulf War of the early 1990s.  

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A real bright spot on this topic, if there is one, comes from the Post-Conflict Assessment Unit (PCAU), a relatively new office of the United Nations Environment Programme based in Geneva. Headed by Pekka Haavisto, a former environment minister from Finland and a leader in the European Green Party movement, the PCAU conducts systematic, but also quick (by glacial scientific study standards), assessments of environmental conditions in post-conflict settings. Haavisto and his teams distinguish between damage done before the conflict to help sort out responsibility and the best means for redressing the damage.

I had the good fortune to speak with Haavisto three times over the last six months when he spoke at two Wilson Center sponsored meetings. He said skeptics often tell him that caring about the environment is a luxury item in post-conflict reconstruction. Addressing the environment, according to this argument, must come after more immediate challenges are taken care of: demobilizing soldiers, jump-starting economies, restoring agriculture, and the like.  But Haavisto convincingly maintains what is more immediately important to civilians living in former war zones than to know if their well is poisoned, if their fields are free of landmines and unexploded ordinance, or if the river remains polluted from the bombed-out chemical factory upstream?

Haavisto and his team conduct their neutral assessments only after the government invites them in.  And increasingly their work goes beyond just reporting on conditions — in more cases the cooperation with officials on the ground necessary to complete the reports is a first step to building lasting environmental management structures that help safeguard the environment and build confidence and trust among former adversaries.

UNEP’s PCAU is just one of the three legs of environment and security work now underway at the Nairobi-based U.N. organization.  You can get a sense of more of this work from UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer’s statement to mark this International Day on environment and war.

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I’ll write more in future about UNEP’s other efforts in the area of environmental security.  We at the Wilson Center are assisting UNEP in some of their more long-term research efforts and want to get Gristmill reader feedback on the results.