From Conflict to Peacebuilding: Introduction

Since the end of the Cold War, two fundamental changes have shaped the way the international community understands peace and security. First, the range of potential actors of conflict has expanded significantly to include a number of non-state entities. Indeed, security is no longer narrowly conceived in terms of military threats from aggressor nations. In today’s world, state failure and civil war in developing countries represent some of the greatest risks to global peace. War-torn countries have become havens and recruiting grounds for international terrorist networks, organized crime, and drug traffickers, and tens of millions of refugees have spilled across borders, creating new tensions in host communities. Instability has also rippled outward as a consequence of cross-border incursions by rebel groups, causing disruptions in trade, tourism and international investment.

Second, the potential causes of insecurity have also increased and diversified considerably. While political and military issues remain critical, conceptions of conflict and security have broadened: economic and social threats including poverty, infectious diseases and environmental degradation are now also seen as significant contributing factors. This new understanding of the contemporary challenges to peace is now being reflected in high-level policy debates and statements. The 2004 report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change highlighted the fundamental relationship between the environment, security, and social and economic development in the pursuit of global peace in the 21st century,[1] while a historic debate at the UN Security Council in June 2007 concluded that poor management of “high-value” resources constituted a threat to peace.[2] More recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon confirmed that “the basic building blocks of peace and security for all peoples are economic and social security, anchored in sustainable development, [because they] allow us to address all the great issues – poverty, climate, environment and political stability – as parts of a whole.”[3]

The potential for conflicts to be ignited by the environmental impacts of climate change is also attracting international interest in this topic. A recent high-level brief by the European Union, for instance, called climate change a “threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions and instability” posing both political and security risks.[4] As a result, no serious discussion of current or emerging threats to security can take place without considering the role of natural resources and the environment.

This changing security landscape requires a radical shift in the way the international community engages in conflict management. From conflict prevention and early warning to peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, the potential role of natural resources and the environment must be taken into consideration at the onset. Indeed, deferred action or poor choices made early on are easily “locked in,” establishing unsustainable trajectories of recovery that can undermine the fragile foundations of peace. In addition, ignoring the environment as a peacebuilding tool misses an important opportunity for dialogue and confidence-building between former conflicting parties: some of the world’s greatest potential tensions over water resources for example – including those over the Indus River system and Nile Basin – have been addressed through cooperation rather than violent conflict.[5], [6] Integrating environmental management and natural resources into peacebuilding, therefore, is no longer an option – it is a security imperative.

The establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission provides an important chance to address environmental risks and capitalize on potential opportunities in a more consistent and coherent way. This was clearly recognized in 2007 by the former Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Carolyn McAskie, when she stated that “where resource exploitation has driven war, or served to impede peace, improving governance capacity to control natural resources is a critical element of peacebuilding.”[7]

With a view to offering independent expertise and advice to the Commission and the wider peacebuilding community, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established an Expert Advisory Group on Environment, Conflict and Peacebuilding in February 2008. Consisting of leading academics, think tanks and non-governmental organizations with combined experience from over 30 conflict-affected countries (see annex 4), the Group provides policy inputs, develops tools, and identifies best practice in using natural resources and the environment in ways that contribute to peacebuilding and prevent relapse into conflict.

This report, authored by UNEP and selected members of the Expert Advisory Group, aims to summarize the current academic knowledge and field experience on the links between environment, conflict and peacebuilding. Written to inform UN entities, Member States and other peacebuilding actors, it presents fourteen case studies and provides key recommendations for addressing natural resources and the environment in conflict management.

The report is divided into five chapters. Following this first section, chapter two focuses on the linkages between environment and conflict and examines how resource availability and exploitation, combined with economic, social and political factors, can drive violence and insecurity. Chapter three offers an analysis of how conflicts affect the environment, through a combination of direct and indirect impacts and through the breakdown of governance and diversion of financial resources. The fourth chapter examines the relationship between environment and peacebuilding in terms of economic recovery and the development of sustainable livelihoods. It also discusses how environmental cooperation and assistance for sustainable development can help achieve wider peacebuilding goals, and how integrating environmental factors earlier on may build trust, contribute to reconciliation and support the peacebuilding agenda. The fifth and final chapter of the report provides policy recommendations for the UN and wider peacebuilding community to integrate environmental and natural resource issues into conflict management, proposing six different areas for concrete action.

Glossary of terms used in this report

Conflict: Conflict is a dispute or incompatibility caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests. In political terms, conflict refers to wars or other struggles that involve the use of force. In this report, the term “conflict” is understood to mean violent conflict.

Conflict resources: Conflict resources are natural resources whose systematic exploitation and trade in a context of conflict contribute to, benefit from, or result in the commission of serious violations of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law or violations amounting to crimes under international law.[8]

Ecosystem services: An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities, and the non-living environment interacting as a functional unit. Ecosystem services are the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that compose them, sustain and fulfill human life. These include “provisioning services” such as food, water, timber, and fiber; “regulating services” that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; “cultural services” that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and “supporting services” such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.

Environment: The environment is the sum of all external conditions affecting the life, development and survival of an organism. In the context of this report, environment refers to the physical conditions that affect natural resources (climate, geology, hazards) and the ecosystem services that sustain them (e.g. carbon, nutrient and hydrological cycles).

Livelihood: A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. It is considered sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks, and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base.

Natural resources: Natural resources are actual or potential sources of wealth that occur in a natural state, such as timber, water, fertile land, wildlife, minerals, metals, stones, and hydrocarbons. A natural resource qualifies as a renewable resource if it is replenished by natural processes at a rate comparable to its rate of consumption by humans or other users. A natural resource is considered non-renewable when it exists in a fixed amount, or when it cannot be regenerated on a scale comparative to its consumption.

Peacebuilding: Peacebuilding comprises the identification and support of measures needed for transformation toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships and structures of governance, in order to avoid a relapse into conflict. The four dimensions of peacebuilding are: socio-economic development, good governance, reform of justice and security institutions, and the culture of justice, truth and reconciliation.

Peacekeeping: Peacekeeping is both a political and a military activity involving a presence in the field, with the consent of the parties, to implement or monitor arrangements relating to the control of conflicts (cease-fires, separation of forces), and their resolution (partial or comprehensive settlements), as well as to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Peacemaking: Peacemaking is the diplomatic process of brokering an end to conflict, principally through mediation and negotiation, as foreseen under Chapter VI of the UN Charter.

Security: “State or national security” refers to the requirement to maintain the survival of the nation-state through the use of economic, military and political power and the exercise of diplomacy. “Human security” is a paradigm for understanding global vulnerabilities, which argues that the proper referent for security should be the individual rather than the state. Human security holds that a people-centred view of security is necessary for national, regional and global stability. “Environmental security” refers to the area of research and practice that addresses the linkages among the environment, natural resources, conflict and peacebuilding.


  1. ^ UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. (2004). A more secure world: our shared responsibility: Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. United Nations General Assembly. New York.
  2. ^ UN Security Council. (2007, 25 June). Statement 2007/22 by the President of the Security Council. United Nations Security Council. New York.
  3. ^ Ban, K. (2008, 16 April). “A green future - The right war.” Time.
  4. ^ EU Commission and High Representative. (2008). Climate change and international security: Paper to the European Council. S113/8. European Council. Brussels.
  5. ^ Conca, K. & Dabelko, G. (Eds.) (2002). Environmental peacemaking. Woodrow Wilson Center Press & John Hopkins University Press. Washington, D.C., pp. 61-62, 65-67.
  6. ^ Kameri-Mbote, P. (2007). Navigating peace: water, conflict and cooperation: Lessons from the Nile River Basin. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Washington, D.C.
  7. ^ UN Environment Programme, Environmental Law Institute & IUCN. (2007). Managing natural resources in post-conflict societies: Lessons in making the transition to peace. Meeting report: 17-18 September 2007. Geneva.
  8. ^ Global Witness. (2006). The sinews of war. Global Witness Publishing. Washington, D.C.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.


This is a chapter from From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment (report).
Previous: Executive Summary  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: The role of natural resources and environment in conflict



Programme, U. (2009). From Conflict to Peacebuilding: Introduction. Retrieved from


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