Remarks at a UN Security Council High-Level Discussion on Humanitarian Effects of Environmental Degradation on Peace and Security (via VTC)

Rodney Hunter
Political Coordinator
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
September 17, 2020


Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. Foreign Minister, we are pleased to have you join us here in the Council today, albeit virtually. The United States appreciates the opportunity to reflect today on this very important issue. We have seen instances of environmental damage resulting from armed conflict all too frequently, and we know how this can impact humanitarian conditions in fragile contexts.

Since 2004, when then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan highlighted the relationship between the environment, security, and socio-economic development, this body has discussed various aspects of environmental effects on international peace and security.

And as we know all too well, there is a growing competition for water resources and arable land playing a major role in driving conflict in both the Lake Chad Basin and in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border region.

The problem has grown as a multitude of non-state actors have exploded on the scene. Militias and organized criminal entities contribute to violence that destroys the environment within which they operate, and that perpetuates protracted and complex humanitarian crises.

In times of conflict, the illegal exploitation of resources is used to support and fuel the conflict, to the extreme detriment of the local populations. Indeed, the exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses frequently become part of the full range of the conflict cycle. Minerals, timber, wildlife, land, and water resources can quickly become contested, their exploitation can finance conflict, and the associated environmental degradation and social upheaval can undermine prospects for peace.

Unfortunately, we have too many examples of this globally. In 2017, the so-called Islamic State triggered vast toxic clouds by setting ablaze oil wells and a sulfur factory near the Iraqi city of Mosul, poisoning the landscape and the people.

Those engaged in conflict have used biodiversity hotspots for refuge. Places like Garamba National Park, which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, and Virunga National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the DRC. This is leading to the decimation of native protected plant and animal species due to poaching and trafficking of wildlife, illegal logging, and illegal mining associated with conflict.

In Colombia, illegal armed groups have continued to contest resources in rural areas, some of which were controlled by the FARC prior to the 2016 peace accord. Concerns include land grabbing and deforestation, illegal mining, and coca cultivation and cocaine production. Newly deforested hectares in 2016 were 44 percent higher than in 2015, and continued to increase in 2017. In 2018 deforestation decelerated somewhat, but remains one of Colombia’s most critical environmental challenges.

And in Venezuela, the illegitimate Maduro regime is complicit in, and profiting from, illegal gold mining that is devastating the environment and indigenous populations across the Southern part of the country. Armed criminal groups, including some from Colombia designated as terrorists, are indiscriminately poisoning the land and water, clandestinely exporting the wealth that is the birthright of every Venezuelan.

These are just a few examples of how environmental damage during conflict can prolong the effects of these conflict on innocent people. Even after the conflict ends, its impact on the environment can hinder or outright prevent individuals’ ability to recover, including the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes.

The economic impact of environmental damage can be felt not only in direct financial losses, but also in the costs associated with rehabilitating the environment post-conflict. The United States has partnered with many governments to help repair the effects of environmental damage related to conflict.

In 2018, the United States, through USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, or CARPE, addressed wildlife trafficking in areas of southeastern CAR and northeastern DRC by the Lord’s Resistance Army. CARPE partners operate in collaboration with communities living near targeted protected areas of Garamba National Park in the DRC and Chinko Nature Reserve in CAR to control wildlife poaching and trafficking, which is a source of financing for groups active in the region.

These activities addressed security and governance vacuums and disrupted operations of transnational organized syndicates. These programs strengthen the management of the protected areas of the park while improving security and the rule of law in the region, and ensure that the rangers are able to protect the park, pursue and arrest poachers and other perpetrators of illicit activity, and work with surrounding populations to conserve and manage the park’s resources in a responsible manner.

As a result of this support, the number of elephants poached has dropped from 100 per year in 2017, to fewer than 10 per year in the past two years. The number of attacks on villages by LRA and other armed groups within Garamba’s area of operation was reduced from 68 in 2015 to only one in 2019.

The United States and Colombia signed an MOU in 2018 to combat illegal gold mining by supporting its regularization and formalization, working jointly to detect and eliminate the use of mercury, strengthening legal economic alternatives to illegal mining, strengthening efforts to identify and monitor areas affected by illegal mining, and strengthening the capacity of law enforcement to prevent, control, investigate, and prosecute crimes associated with the illicit exploitation of minerals. A similar MOU with Peru in 2017 became the basis for the Colombia MOU. We are also working with the international community to combat the disastrous environmental and security impacts of illicit gold mining in Venezuela, as facilitated by the illegitimate Nicolas Maduro regime and other criminal actors.

A sensitive issue, and one that hits closer to home for us in the United States, is from the Vietnam War which involved a chemical defoliant with severe and lingering human health impacts. The United States has been working to support Vietnam’s efforts to clean up dioxin, or Agent Orange, contamination. In 2018, the United States concluded its support of a six-year, $110 million project for environmental remediation of dioxin at Danang Airport. On December 5, 2019, the United States and Vietnam announced further support for Vietnam’s dioxin remediation efforts at Bien Hoa Airbase, and we have committed $300 million to the 10-year effort to restore the airbase and surrounding areas.

Finally, as we discussed just this week and has been mentioned by others today, we must act with urgency as it relates to the Safer oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. Few potential environmental disasters loom as large. Failure to address this situation, as the Council has been briefed about at length, would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian implications; not just for Yemen, but for much of the region.

In conclusion, we urge all member states not to lose sight of the environmental dimensions of conflict, and the associated economic and health effects for the populations affected.

Thank you, Mr. President.