Although it has been 14 years since violence devastated Rwanda, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
is now preparing to conduct a Post-Conflict Assessment (PCA) of the country. As Rwanda Project Coordinator Hassan Partow explained, “UNEP does not initiate environmental assessment in any country, it only comes in when invited
,” and Rwanda only recently requested that a PCA be conducted (see full list of PCAs here
In a May 2004 presentation at the Wilson Center
, Pekka Haavisto, former chairman of UNEP’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit (PCAU)—now called the Disasters and Conflicts Programme and headed by David Jensen—remarked that “the post-conflict situation is a unique opportunity to create something new.” Just as environmental issues can lead to conflicts
, they can also hamper efforts to create lasting peace following conflict, making PCAs invaluable tools in rebuilding nations following conflict. Common post-conflict environmental challenges include hazardous waste, radioactive materials, deforestation, chemical fires, overcrowded refugee camps, and contaminated water supplies. PCAs assess these challenges and offer recommendations for addressing them.
The environment can also provide a platform for dialogue and cooperation, said Haavisto, citing the case of the Palestinian Territories, where water has long been a nexus of tension and where PCAU has worked since 2001. Israeli and Palestinian officials both support PCAU’s operations in the region, where it brokered an agreement on future environmental cooperation and is working toward reestablishing the Joint Environmental Expert Committee to coordinate sustainable development in the area. Haavisto also noted that UNEP’s PCA work in Iraq following the Gulf War resulted in the first official meeting between Iraq and Iran in nearly 30 years.
The 2007 Sudan PCA cautions that “Sudan is unlikely to see a lasting peace unless widespread and rapidly accelerating environmental degradation is urgently addressed.” The PCA underscored how environmental stresses—including desertification, land degradation, and decreasing rainfall—have contributed to economic desperation, which has been a key instigator of the violence plaguing the region. “It is clear,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, that “central to keeping the peace will be the way in which Sudan’s environment is rehabilitated and managed.” Sudan’s tragedy, he said, highlights “how issues such as uncontrolled depletion of natural resources like soils and forests allied to impacts like climate change can destabilize communities, even entire nations.” Yet promisingly, Sudan’s government recently established an environmental ministry, demonstrating how PCAs can spur governments to devote resources to environmental concerns by showing that they are integrally related to economic, health, and security issues.
Though PCAU has completed 18 PCAs since 1995 and has aided in the reconstruction of many countries, Haavisto acknowledged continuing difficulties in persuading governments to prioritize the environment. It has been an ongoing challenge, he said, to “convince different stakeholders that the environment is an important issue that needs to be dealt with immediately.” Yet as the above examples demonstrate, UNEP has achieved considerable accomplishments despite these difficulties.