Can environmental destruction justify military intervention? Robyn Eckersley, a professor of environmental politics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, explores the morality, legality, and legitimacy of such involvement in “Ecological Intervention: Prospects and Limits
,” which appears in the latest issue of Ethics and International Affairs
Eckersley argues that the United Nations—particularly the Security Council—possesses the authority to assume a larger role in protecting the environment. This idea is not original, however: Klaus Töpfer, former head of the UN Environment Programme, and Mikhail Gorbachev have both called for the creation of a “green helmets
” force to respond to environmental crises.
Eckersley identifies three categories of environmental harm that could justify an ecological intervention—which she defines as “the threat or use of force by a state or coalition of states within the territory of another state and without the consent of that state in order to prevent grave environmental damage”—or the launch of an ecological defense—which she defines as “the preventive use of force in response to the threat of serious and immediate environmental harm flowing into the territory of a ‘victim’ state.”
- A major environmental emergency with transboundary spillover effects. As an illustration, Eckersley hypothesizes a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident in a country that lacks the capacity to cope with the catastrophe but refuses foreign assistance. She argues that the notion of “territorial integrity” inscribed in the UN Charter can readily be interpreted to include “ecosystem integrity”—and therefore justify an intervention by an affected state. Currently, a country affected by another country’s nuclear accident can only hope for monetary reparations.
- An ecocide—the result of intentional, systematic acts that cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the environment—involving serious human rights violations. Saddam Hussein’s decimation of the marsh region that was home to the Madan, or Marsh Arabs, is a case in point. Eckersley’s legal argument here relies on an expansive interpretation of the UN Charter’s notion of “threat to the peace.”
- An ecocide involving no serious harm to human beings. An illustration of this situation would be the deployment of troops in the Great Lakes to protect the mountain gorillas. Contending that biodiversity is a “common concern of humankind,” Eckersley argues that states have a responsibility to other states to protect their environment, as the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development suggests.
Eckersley’s proposition, though interesting, suffers from a number of pitfalls. One major problem is that her argument could open the door to an extremely wide range of military interventions. For instance, her call for interventions to protect endangered species is extremely impractical—if not impossible—given the prediction that climate change will threaten the existences of millions of species will be at risk by 2050. One option—though not without serious problems of its own—would be to establish a list of “indispensable” species.
Another weakness of Eckersley’s article is that it neglects the role of incentives, focusing instead on the use of force, even though governments are often more receptive to the former. The army is probably not the organization best-suited to protecting coral or chimpanzees. Troop deployments are both financially and morally costly: Developing countries might view an increasing number of interventions by the Security Council as a violation of their sovereignty or a new form of colonization. Furthermore, it will take far more than military interventions to ensure the health of the environment.
Additional flaws in Eckersley’s argument include her attempt to build the case for ecological interventions on that of still-controversial humanitarian interventions, and her wish to saddle the United Nations with additional responsibilities.
Ecological intervention and ecological defense are interesting concepts, anticipating the future importance of the environment in foreign policy. However, Eckersley’s argument goes too far. Few countries would send troops into hostile territory solely to protect the local environment or wildlife. The necessary intermediate step is to continue studying the links between conflict and the environment, biodiversity, and climate change. That research will make possible the development of pragmatic, environment-centered conflict-prevention and conflict-resolution strategies.