International Law and Resource Plunder: The Protection of Natural Resources During Armed Conflict
YEARBOOK OF INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL LAW 2008, Ole Kristian Fauchald, David Hunter and Wang Xi, eds., Oxford University Press, February 2010
41 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2010 Last revised: 9 Nov 2013
An abundance of valuable natural resources, such as oil, timber, gold, or diamonds, in a country has in recent years increasingly proven to be a cause for socio-economic and political instability rather than an engine for development. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the ‘resource curse’. In several cases, a wealth of valuable natural resources in a country has even triggered or fueled armed conflict. Examples include the ‘blood diamonds’ of Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, and Sierra Leone and the ‘conflict timber’ of Liberia and Cambodia. Natural resources are among the principal means to finance internal armed conflicts today, sometimes replacing external funding by foreign states. Furthermore, internal rivalry for access to, and control over, the exploitation of valuable natural resources occasionally spills over to neighbouring countries, thus internationalizing an internal armed conflict. The plundering of natural resources in the DRC by Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, respectively, may serve as an example. In these instances, access to natural resources may even have become the principal reason for the parties to continue fighting in armed conflict. Since the global demand for scarce natural resources will only increase in the decades to come, armed conflicts over these natural resources are likely to occur more often or, as Michael Klare puts it, ‘resource wars will become, in the years ahead, the most distinctive feature of the global security environment.’ This new reality poses important challenges to contemporary international law relating to the management of natural wealth and resources during armed conflict.
This article examines the international legal framework for the protection and management of natural wealth and resources during armed conflict. It focuses in particular on the rules that relate to the exploitation and plundering of natural resources by parties to an armed conflict. For this purpose, the article first takes a closer look at the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources and its implications for the situation of armed conflict. A contemporary interpretation of this principle regards it as a rights and duties-based concept, which lays the foundation for the sustainable management of natural resources in a country, both in times of peace as well as during armed conflict. Furthermore, this article assesses the protection of natural wealth and resources under international humanitarian law. Since this field of law is the lex specialis for the situation of armed conflict, it is relevant to examine how and to what extent it lays down rules for parties to an armed conflict with regard to the protection and management of natural wealth and resources. Finally, this article identifies existing lacunae in the international humanitarian law framework and analyzes the role of international environmental law and human rights law in strengthening the protection of natural wealth and resources during armed conflict.
Keywords: Natural Resources, Exploitation, Plundering, Armed Conflict, Obligations
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