Sovereignty vis-a-vis environmental security



The benefit of a changing approach to the concept of sovereignty over natural resources extends to environmental or ecological security as it relates to facilitating conflict resolution to prevent or resolve armed conflict or hostilities or threats therefrom between and among States.

In this, the due regard principle in customary law comes to the fore. Nature is civilian in character but it is easy to transform civilian to military objective. An example is the reported pollution of the Danube River during the Kosovo war resulting from alleged bombing of industrial facilities.

From time to time, military conflicts over water rights was a national security issue between India and Pakistan over the Indus; Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile; Turkey and Syria over the Euphrates; Botswana and Namibia over Okavango; Israel and Palestine over the Jordan River.

Water in those areas cross political boundaries with the concomitant boundary issue. The situation, however, creates a natural interdependence between the States in sharing the water resource drawing people to work together on the water resource availability aspect even when countries were officially at war.

In reality, environmental security problems are solved not only within the confines of national boundaries. Often, they involve transborder areas, e.g. transboundary deep or shallow underground aquifers, international rivers, other shared watercourses. Actually, governance of groundwater remains weak, perhaps partly because of reliance on the old concept of sovereignty.

There are no standards for developing boundaries for groundwater systems rendering effective governance problematic. Governance models are moving towards public-private partnership for environmental management and utilization and groundwater as part of the global commons. And, when the environmental harm or interference occurs within national boundaries, they give rise to internally displaced persons as what happened to victims of water conflicts or of natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and floods. Ultimately, their displacement bring them across national boundaries as environmental refugees.

Ecological security must be recognized as an inseparable component of the concept of sovereignty to attain international security. States must recognize their joint responsibility for the protection of the transnational environment. Opportunities for the shift of political attention and natural resources from the military domain to the environmental domain should be pursued, i.e. strengthening confidence through cooperation in environmental and other non-military areas.

The issue of environmental security occurs whenever sovereignty issue pose a threat like potential disputes over exploitation of natural resources. Case in point is the rich in marine and mineral resources but object of overlapping ownership claims of the Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea among the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan where more arguments favor cooperation to preserve/conserve the ecological wealth of the area than tackling head-on the territorial sovereignty issue. Apart from the long-standing suggestion for an Asean Area of Cooperation in the Spratlys, there are possibilities for the provision of internationally protected area status in the area through multilateral cooperative options available.

Indeed, the notion of ecogeographical regimes is a useful one in demarcating areas within which natural resources can be taken to be relatively homogenous and, consequently, the concept of sovereignty duly re-adjusted. The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, the two international commissions for the environmental protection and sustainable utilization of the Baltic Sea, and the comparable mechanism for cooperation among most of the littoral states are examples of this. In short, there is a continuing need for international and inter-regional cooperation that must be able to transcend the rights of sovereignty now vested in States. The principle of shared responsibility for the protection of the environment must be fully accepted.

It is also a fact that politico-military and environmental security are linked in terms of opportunity costs. Political attention and material resources spent in the military sector could be used to strengthen environmental security. A revised concept of sovereignty is an opportunity to shift attention and resources from the military sector to the environment sector. It could further elaboration of confidence and security building measures in both the military and civilian sectors by the adoption of less offensive military postures in defense of the environment. Hopefully, after the most recent posturings, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea would still be headed towards this direction via the proposal to make the area an international peace and nature park for, among others, the preservation of biodiversity found therein.

Environmental security should be equitable for all States, cultures and generations. Environmental conscience, search for common gains, and multilateral cooperation should replace attitudes and policies of confrontation with the insurance of recognition of the concept of sovereignty over natural resources. The removal of confrontation between States is an important precondition for the removal of confrontation between humankind and the natural environment considering the fundamental necessity of securing the long-term availability of natural resources.

The pursuit of environmental security could become a major agent of change in international affairs, promoting an international order more compatible with human needs. Common sovereignty over natural resources should be recognized and given priority in the resolution of conflicts and hostilities among States.

*The author was Philippine Ambassador to Papua New Guinea and Qatar; Delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention; and first Director, Environmental Management Bureau


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