Presentation on Women, Peace and Security, law and the environment

At the first workshop on Gender, Nature and Peace at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security in London, I spoke about strategies for the protection of the environment in war.

Here is the text of my contribution at the conference.

I am going to talk about the lessons we can learn from the Women, Peace and Security agenda for the protection of non-human animals and the environment.

I am going to argue that the way how animals and the environment are seen in wars today, is similar to the situation of women a few years or decades ago. War crimes against animals and the Earth are seen as collateral damage, rather than worth of recognition in themselves. A situation similar to the violence against women in the past. The WPS agenda – so an international process to raise awareness – was able to change this – and I’m going to explore what we can learn from this process.

War has particularly grave and long-term consequences for both women and the environment. Attacks on women and on the environment have in common that they can extend long into the future.

In the case of sexual violence against women, for example, the effects go beyond the individual and have effects on the stability and social structure of communities across generations.

In the case of attacks on the environment the area or the species affected need decades to recover.

There are also similarities in the way we have been thinking about them. I see three important parallels between the situation of women and of the environment in war zones:

First: Both have been ignored for most of the time in history in the discourse about war. They have been invisible.

Second: Violence against both women and the environment is seen as collateral damage, as something inevitable.

Third: Both have been excluded from policies, institutions and the protection of the law. Lawyers and policy-makers have taken long to recognise the needs and suffering of women in times of conflict. War crimes against women have rarely been prosecuted.

The WPS agenda has brought some important changes.

First: It made violence against women visible. The efforts of civil society and committed states have shed light on the problem. Everyone recognises now that war has brutal effects on women, and that they need to play a role in peace-making efforts.

As a consequence, a policy framework, laws and institutions evolved. The awareness of prosecutors and judges, thanks to the WPS agenda, is playing a critical role.

I’m aware of the criticisms, limitations and short-comings of the WPS agenda, and I realise there is still a big gap between the words and commitments, and the reality.

However, I do think there have been some fundamental shifts and improvements in the last years and decades.

The key question then is: Why are getting war crimes against women now more attention? What can we learn from this process for the protection of the environment? And where do we go from here?

I would like to highlight two main points on what made the WPS agenda successful: A ‘moral awakening’ and a stronger commitment of states to act. By ‘moral awakening’ I mean the realisation by governments and the public that war crimes against women are widespread, that they should not be tolerated, and that they can be addressed with the right policies.

The other factor for success was a greater willingness of governments to act – for example the development and diffusion of policies on WPS, such as the protection of women and girls.

National Action Plans, for example, have helped to develop concrete polices at the national level. It’s always easier for policy makers to build on experiences and work within a framework, rather than developing something completely new.

For the protection of the environment, the first aspect is particularly relevant. We need a ‘moral awakening’ for the environment, too. The international community needs to be outraged about attacks on the environment in the same way we are outraged about attacks on humans.

The international community has been concerned with the humanitarian consequences of war – the consequences for humans –, but not with environmental consequences.

The reason is that, for policy-makers and prosecutors, attacks on the environment and their consequences are invisible, they’re absent from the discourse – and seen as an inevitable part of conflict. This is the same pattern we have seen a few decades ago with war crimes against women.

Moreover, environmental crimes require us to think differently about law – particularly criminal law and accountability. So we need to go further than ‘only’ raising awareness.

To hold perpetrators of crimes like genocide accountable, the law requires an ‘actus reus’ – bad will, or intention. For environmental crimes, this is not always the case: many attacks against the environment in war are caused by neglect or inaction, rather than by the intent to destroy the environment. This aspect needs to be reflected better in international criminal law.

A second aspect requires a different way of thinking: law so far rarely takes into account the factor time. When we speak about the universality of international law, we usually mean geography. For international law and human rights as we know them, this works: every person, every women, in every conflict worldwide, should receive the same protection.

With regards to environmental crimes, however, it’s not this geographical expansion, but temporal expansion to future generations. Law on the protection of the environment needs to include a factor that takes into account the fact that the consequences of environmental war crimes extend beyond the generation of today. An environmental crime should be seen as graver, the longer it takes the environment to recover.

The WPS agenda was able to change – to a certain extent – the way we think about war crimes against women. A “War and Environment” agenda can learn from this process to raise awareness and to ensure that environmental concerns are present in processes of war and peace.

However, it needs to go a step further. Simply recognising non-humans or the environment and simply add them as subjects in our existing laws is not enough. Attacks on the environment need to be addressed with their particularities.

To get there, putting the consequences of war on the environment in the spotlights is a crucial step. Environmental crimes need to become part of the discourse. In this respect, we can learn lessons from the WPS process.