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  • Sampurna Mukherjee and Vikrant Sharma

Climate Change Armed Conflict and the Environment: A ‘Double’ Humanitarian Crisis in East Africa

The relationship between ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Armed Conflict’ has remained inconspicuous for the longest time. In a multipolar globalised world deeming ‘human security’ i.e. freedom from fear and freedom from want as the two most important components in this concept, to be the raison d'être behind an individual’s existence and political organisation, this interface between climate change and armed conflict is no longer speculative. While aiming for environmental protection, earlier international humanitarian laws did not envisage a relationship between climate change and armed conflict, that has been exploited later on which would be seen in this piece. These laws state, while engaging in armed conflict, unnecessary and excessive destruction of the environment was forbidden, unless there were precise and justifiable military reasons to do so. The recent conflicts seen in Cabo Delgado and Tigray demonstrate the conjoint impact of climate change and armed conflict on environmental degradation, protected only partially by the earlier humanitarian laws on armed conflict and environmental protection.


Article 3 of the third Geneva Convention applicable to Prisoners of War, 1949, provides that when an armed conflict has occurred in a ‘local or municipal territory’, there are human rights guarantees against violence to life, person and personal dignity to all inactive participants in the hostility. This is significant in light of the grave circumstances plaguing Cabo Delgado, including massive displacement, child marriages, deplorable conditions of poverty and hunger that is on the rise as well as crimes committed against the human body and property. Cabo Delgado has a history of being struck periodically by natural calamities from its own unique geographically vulnerable location and man-made activities of deforestation and intensive oil gas and mining activities. The armed conflict in Northern Mozambique's Cabo Delgado in began 2017 between the Islamist Extremist group Al- Shabab, the Mozambican armed security forces, and the private militia engaged by the government. After Cyclone Kenneth struck in 2019, the area, known for its vulnerability to climate change, was ravaged further. The already fragile conditions deteriorated further as a result of the pandemic. However, the circumstances are not very different in Tigray that is located 3000 kms away, a parallel drawn for the purpose of comparison between the two, in similar predicaments in so far as the applicable laws are concerned.


Ethiopia’s Tigray region has similarly grappled with the consequences of climate change and armed conflict. Battling locust infestations, land degradation and rising water levels has potentially propagated the armed conflict further in the absence of governmental action, and exacerbated the ongoing armed conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government. The environmental challenges had contributed to local support to the rebel group, after reports of deliberate starvation, poverty, lack of education and health emergency, with hopes of getting access to basic resources and monetary compensation, by the TPLF. With the recent retreat of the TPLF after looming ‘civil war concerns’, the consequences of climate change incessant food insecurity induced hunger, reliance on rain-fed agriculture, frequent droughts and floods in the light of rapid population growth and increasing temperatures on the armed conflict, that additionally contributed to the ability to advance beyond the Tigray region and close in on the capital of Ethiopia, cannot be undermined in leading to another ‘armed conflict’ if the case arises in future.


Armed conflicts have repeatedly capitalized on the vulnerability of climate-related risks for military gains. Environmental protection is an integral part of the existing human rights law, since there are immense implications on the civilians co-existing with the natural environment. However, the ambiguous protection can also be used to hinder environmental protection. It has been found that there is direct relationship between natural and man-made climate change related risks and an affinity to support armed conflict miscreants, something that maybe absent if there are adequate safeguards, both national and international put in place, for security human security for the civilians and the environment. In other words, the rise of climate change risks only exacerbates chances of a armed conflict, that not only has a detrimental the civilians but also the environment and its components at large, as seen in the twin instances above.


It can be difficult to determine if the destruction of the environment is conclusively barred by treaty or customary law because the directness of the military impact, including whether it is wanton or of nominal military value, whether reasonably connected as per the ‘imperative demands’, and the remoteness in the chain of causation are taken into account to determine if a violation took place. For example, Protocol I of 1977 specifically prohibits acts that can cause long-term damage to the environment in an international armed conflict. The Rome Statute, with hardly 100+ parties, declares it a war crime to intentionally cause ‘wide-spread, long term and severe damage’ to the environment. However, the same section places a caveat on this, stating that the destruction caused must be ‘clearly excessive’ with respect to the military gains anticipated from the act causing it. Hence, not only some of the standards are contradictory and at best found to be open to debate and confusing, it does lead to an unavoidable laxity, unsupported and confounding to the legal framework and contents at hand.

The intense militarisation through armed conflict and the capability of climate change to affect civilians requires sufficient safeguards, with an ancillary focus on stable governance, to name one. While the current laws could protect the environment, their limitations restrict enforceability owing to the ‘international’ state of affairs, which the interchange between international humanitarian law and international environmental law, that was held to be not mutually interchangeable in the present circumstances, garners attention but not appropriate and proportionate action. It is only logical that the next step should provide comprehensive protection to the environment as an asset shared by humanity, regardless of which party wins an armed conflict for all the stakeholders overall.

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