Peace agreements often ignore natural resources, report finds

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Ceasefire or peace agreements rarely cover terms about natural resources and vulnerable populations in a meaningful, comprehensive way, a new report has found, often causing conflicts to re-ignite.

Peace agreements often ignore natural resources, report finds
  • A new report by Forest Trends has found that of the more than 800 peace agreements recorded since 1945, fewer than 15 percent address terms related to “natural resources”.
  • In the handful of peace agreements that do address the “management of natural resources”, the implementation of the terms is minimal at best, report found.
  • Since most peace agreements fail to formally address natural resources in their text, report notes that agreements that do get signed are often difficult to maintain, causing conflicts to re-ignite.

In countries with weak governance, mismanagement of natural resources — such as oil, forests, minerals and water — can often fuel violent conflict. In fact, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), at least forty percent of all interstate violent conflicts in the last 60 years have been linked to natural resources. Despite this, natural resources are usually not considered important enough to be included in peace or ceasefire agreements meaningfully, a new report by Washington D.C.-based Forest Trends suggests.

“The research emerged as part of an ongoing collaboration with civil society colleagues in Myanmar and Indonesia on resource management issues in countries in transition from conflict and military dictatorships,” Arthur G. Blundell of Forest Trends told Mongabay.

Blundell and colleague Emily Harwell examined two large databases of peace agreements — the Transitional Justice Peace Agreements and the United Nations Peacemaker database. They found that of the more than 800 peace agreements recorded since 1945, fewer than 15 percent address terms related to “natural resources”.

The team also looked at a third database — the Peace Agreements Matrix from the University of Notre Dame that examines the implementation of the terms in 34 peace agreements – and found that only 10 of these peace agreements specifically address the “management” of natural resources. Moreover, the implementation of the terms in these 10 agreements is minimal at best, the researchers say.

Women of Liberia started started a movement to end the Second Liberian Civil War. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Women of Liberia started started a movement to end the Second Liberian Civil War. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“So we are failing both to include natural resources in ceasefire negotiations, and to address the issue during the actual peace-building,” Blundell said. “And we are concerned that the trend is not changing: since World War II, there’s been no increase in the rate at which peace agreements deal with natural resources.  Last summer, in a High Level Panel Report on peacekeeping for the United Nations, the role of natural resources in driving a resumption of conflict is not mentioned at all.”

The lack of inclusion of natural resources, even in recent peace agreements, can be witnessed in the single Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed by Myanmar’s government and eight ethnic groups in October 2015. While distribution and control of natural resources are key concerns for many ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar, this is not mentioned specifically in the agreement, Blundell said.

“Likewise, Myanmar Peace Monitor noted that only 5 of the 15 of the individual agreements with the different ethnic groups address natural resources at all – and in these cases, rather than requiring governance reform, it allows the factions to continue exploiting the resources after the ceasefire,” he added.

The team found that in general, peace agreements have a pattern: they rarely cover terms about natural resources and vulnerable populations in a meaningful, comprehensive way. They tend to focus more on governance and enforcement.

“We hope that it isn’t because the negotiators simply are unaware of the importance of dealing with the issue,” Blundell said. “But if that’s indeed the case, at least that problem could be addressed through awareness-raising efforts, like our paper.”

Each bar represents the mean for the percentage of peace agreements (PAs) that deal with issues across six themes. (Blue = the Transitional Justice Peace Agreements database [640 PAs]; and green= the United Nations Peacemaker database [805 PAs]). Image from Blundell and Harwell, 2016.
Each bar represents the mean for the percentage of peace agreements (PAs) that deal with issues across six themes. (Blue = the Transitional Justice Peace Agreements database [640 PAs]; and green= the United Nations Peacemaker database [805 PAs]). Image from Blundell and Harwell, 2016.
The study does not examine the possible reasons for this lack of attention. But Blundell speculates that one reason could be that “negotiators simply consider cease-fires too fraught to deal with seemingly complex, contentious issues, preferring to leave it to the peace-building phase.”

According to Blundell, the failure to comprehensively include natural resources into ceasefire agreements could also simply be a tactic to get an agreement signed. “The negotiators use natural resources as war booty to entice the parties to come to the table and to lay down their weapons,” he said. “In other cases it may be more cynical — outside forces, like commercial interests, may not want to hamstring the exploitation of natural resources once the war stops.”

For example, despite conflict in Liberia being driven mainly by natural resources (diamond and timber), the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord refers to natural resources only twice, effectively treating these vital resources as booty in the peace agreement, the report notes.

After the peace agreement was signed there was incredible pressure to resume the exploitation of these very same resources even before the necessary governance reforms were in place, Blundell said. “Fortunately in the case of Liberia, the [UN] Security Council maintained the sanctions during the transition phase to help ensure that the governance reforms were put in place,” he added.

Since most peace agreements fail to formally address natural resources in their text, agreements that do get signed are often difficult to maintain, causing conflicts to re-ignite, Blundell and Harwell write. For example, they found that between 1960 and 2000, more than half of all peace agreements were broken within five years.

Sometimes, natural resources may be absent in the text of the ceasefire agreements, but there may be informal “back channel” negotiations about it, the authors add. “However, these informal agreements may be even more detrimental when they occur in ways that exacerbate local grievance related to this resource use and therefore lay the ground for continued conflict,” the authors write.

Natural resource is not just an environmental issue, Blundell said, but should be framed as an issue of peace and security.

“Given the results, it seems clear that we need to now raise a greater awareness with peace negotiators of the importance of the governance of natural resources in breaking the cycle of violence in many resource-rich countries,” he added. “We also need to better understand how to drive these governance reforms during the peace-building phase, especially in countries where you do not have the leverage of UN sanctions to drive this reform. Without durable peace and security, development will remain impossible.”

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