Environment protection: an element of the security paradigm

Until quite recently in its thousands of years of existence mankind believed that although each man was mortal, humankind itself was immortal. So was the historical experience, repeatedly and invariably proven by human development and history. Despite international crises, conflicts, devastating and bloody wars, life on the planet never ended, civilization survived and evolution continued.

On the eve of the third millennium, however, mankind had to realise the ghastly truth that the irrational use of its creative genius and of the fruits of science and technology advances had radically changed its living conditions. In the early 21 century humankind had to realise that it had lost its immortality. Not only the individual but mankind itself had become mortal. Nuclear disaster can break the historical line of humankind, turning the planet into desolate wasteland.

For a long time, the real significance of the risk of nuclear collapse of civilization could not be clearly perceived. That was probably due to a lack of practical experience – nuclear weapon was used against cities and people only twice, against the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. There has been no other “practical” experience. The relative imperfection of the weapons used in 1945 also matters. Despite the devastating results, the hope for survival and successful protection against a nuclear attack persisted simply because that weapon was still judged according to the measures and criteria for conventional weapons. The real danger remained hidden for almost three decades after Hiroshima. To be adequately judged, nuclear disaster had to be perceived as a variation of environmental collapse. That bad as the explosive, thermal, radiation and other effects of the blast were, for a long time they were not perceived as global risk. The hope that it was possible to limit those effects and that one could still survive after them remained. Environmental effects were kept in the dark.

But in the 1970ies the terrifying perspective of the “nuclear winter” was definitively proven. it was demonstrated that the use of even less than 10% of the accumulated nuclear potential would generate weather events which, disastrously changing the temperature of whole continents and of the planet, would irrevocably break the biological cycle. The issue of preventing a nuclear conflict became an issue of the physical survival of mankind, of preserving life on the planet.

Subsequent research showed that was only the tip of the iceberg. Scientists increasingly arrived at the conclusion that even if environmental disaster after nuclear war was avoided, the abuse of energy, raw material, food and other resources of the Earth also led to environmental disaster.[1] Slower, but equally lethal.

Thus, in the beginning of the new century mankind is confronted with entirely new problems and risks for its security which it has to solve in order to ensure its existence and prosperity.

Wealth, resources and environment protection – the changing parameters of international security

International security issues have always played an important role in political debates. Where security exists, the problems are related to maintaining it and where security is impaired, the questions is how to restore it. In both cases the issues are in the focus of attention of the public and of those parliaments and governments which are truly sensitised to the interests of their nations and States. The importance of those issues increases quickly in the complex periods in which the international community or individual States begin transitions to new conditions.

The term “security” is multidimensional by nature. Security is the most comprehensive indicator for the condition of international relations and of their system, as well as for the effectiveness of the foreign policy of every State. Due to the wide coverage of the concept, there are many definitions of the term “international security”. The theory of international security accepts, however, that this is a condition of the foreign relations of the participants in the international intercourse between states and of the whole system of international relations, where no threat to the vital interests of the individual states and of the international community arises or, should such threat arise, there are reliable means for overcoming it in a way allowing normal functioning of the system and free development of every state.

During the Cold War the concept of “security” was perceived, including in the academic circles, in relation to the security of the State, in terms of protecting the territorial integrity and political independence of the State against military threats above all. At the end of the 1980ies the concept was expanded to include economic aspects as well. The State, however, remained the central object of security. It was not until the 1990ies that the focus was shifted from the military dimensions to the security of the individual. The view of the so-called non-traditional threats to international security gradually established itself. It was first formulated at the Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance, 1992. At that point the international community expressed its belief that the understanding of threats to security needed to be expanded to encompass issues like environmental degradation, overpopulation, depletion of global resources, etc.[2]

Towards an ecological map of the world

To understand better the essence of this emerging landscape of international relations, one has to imagine a map of the world reflecting not its political division but the main environmental aspects like major environmental trouble spots, major sources of vital resources, etc. One will thus have a new map where the concentration of the above elements and not the political borders will be of key importance.[3]

While every part of the world will contain certain elements, the highest concentration will be found in a large section on both sides of the Equator. This section will include the Northern part of South America (Amazonia included), Central Africa (including the tributaries in the upstream part of the Nile), the Persian Gulf, South and Southeast Asia. These areas, taken together, cover the major global sources of oil, of many important minerals, of all global tropical forests, as well as some of the most important rivers. Furthermore, unlike the resources found in other areas, the areas of environmental trouble spots and the sources of resources in that region are often found in disputed territories or in countries of ethnic strife or political instability.

Amazonia on the South American continent will remain a major area of conflict. Despite Brazilian Government’s continuous promises to control the cutting of valuable wood and the mining operations in Amazonia and to protect the lands of the local population against foreign invasion, illegal timber felling continues like hell. Some of the local communities supported by non-governmental organisations managed to secure the title over their inhabited lands but, for lacking will or capacity, the government failed to prevent the invasion of those lands by miners and woodcutters. The whole region is thus an arena of fights for land many of which grow into open violence.

Africa is another example of potential environmental instability. In the northern part, the lead conflict is over water in the Nile basin. Water may seem an unlikely source of conflict on the face it. Even so, water disputes characterise the whole history of mankind. For centuries the protection and destruction of vital water systems are at the core of many battles. Early civilisations relied on complex systems of embankments and channels, so those systems were often targets of assault during war. For example, when Assyria attacked Babylon in 689 BC, its armies destroyed the irrigation systems of the city and directed the water towards the city centre, causing massive destruction. Even now, in the early 21st century conflicts over important water reserves constitute an ongoing threat. In an extensive area spanning from North Africa to the Middle East and South Asia water demand quickly surpasses the existing reserves. As many of the key water sources in that area are owned by two or more States which seldom have agreements on the method of distribution of water reserves, conflicts over access to the disputable resources will intensify. This risk is particularly high in the regions having little precipitation where several States rely on a single water source to meet their basic necessities. Such regions are those around the rivers Nile, Jordan, Efrat, etc. If ways to reduce water consumption by capita could not be found, any increase in water consumption by capita in one of the States will lead to decrease in the water reserves of the other States and that in turn could give rise to heated conflict or even war.

A number of other factors could also increase the frequency and violence of possible conflicts over water in the future. As population increases, so does water demand, for everyday use as well as for food production (mostly by irrigation). As if to aggravate the problem, the demographic boom is obviously concentrated exactly in the regions where water reserves are already insufficient to meet many needs – North Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Rapid urbanisation in those regions and the increased water consumption by industry contribute to a higher water demand. This means that, in the future, the stakes in the conflicts over the division of the common water resources will be higher and the loss in a conflict of this kind will have increasingly severe consequences.

Global climate change will further complicate the situation. The increasingly higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will push up average temperatures globally and will change the rainfall maps of many areas. This could result in higher rainfalls in some regions and decrease of precipitations in other regions. Scientists still cannot say how exactly the different regions will be affected but many of them believe that the water reserves in many of the hot continental areas like Northeast Africa (where the Nile flows) and Southwest Asia (where Tiger and Efrat flow) will further decrease.[4]

As each one of the above conflicts has its specifics, experts view them rather as unrelated. However, environmental conflicts in the post-Cold War times are not chaotic or unrelated. They are rather a part of a bigger and interrelated geopolitical system.[5] While until recently international conflict was mainly due to political or ideological reasons, future wars will be for control and possession of valuable economic resources, in particular resources required for the development of modern industrial societies. Whatever their individual primary causes, each one of the above conflicts is a proof of this global race.

Conflict over resources: the war of the 21st century

It is of course not possible to predict where the next conflict over resources will erupt. Things may get better in some of the current regions of concern whereas in other areas conflicts may yet arise. We are witnessing, however, the emergence of a new geography of conflict – a global landscape where the race for vital resources is becoming the particular cause for concentration and use of military force.

The characteristics of this new geography are quite different from those during the Cold War and the then military alliances and scenes of conflict. The regions that were once the focus of attention, like the borderline between Eastern and Western Europe, will lose their strategic importance while areas which have long been neglected by the international community, like the Caspian Basin and South China Sea, will take on major importance.[6] Of great interest will be areas having rich sources of vital resources, as well as the roads connecting those areas with major global markets. Those regions will attract media interest, be the focus of talks of international politicians and there will be considerable building up of military forces there.[7]

Ensuring environmental security is thus becoming a principle, formed relatively recently and envisaging protection of the environment against the most dangerous challenges of global relevance. The States’ obligation under that principle is to adopt measures ensuring protection and maintenance of normal environment and regeneration and rehabilitation of the environment when taking military and economic action. International environmental law takes on increasing importance for the effective implementation of that principle.

International legal basis for ensuring environmental security

Interstate relations, whatever their geographical coverage, are generally regulated by international rules – principles, norms and customs of international public law. Many systems operate in the international practice but it is generally accepted that there is, above all, a global international system covering all existing systems, their subjects and interrelations. International law is thus the system of principles and norms which regulate the relations between entities as well as the public-law-based cooperation in international relations.

There is a special section of international law, called “international environmental law”. It is a system of principles and norms regulating the operation of the subjects of international law relating to the prevention, control and removal of environmental harms and damages.[8]

As science and technology develop, the effect of human economic activity on nature, as well as man’s interference with natural processes intensified dramatically. The uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and the pollution of the biosphere of the Earth has brought the planet close to an unforeseeable environmental catastrophe.[9]

The widest definition of global problems covers issues concerning the interests of all nations, peoples and States on our planet, i.e. problems with a global, worldwide dimension. The protection of the environment under international law is increasingly establishing itself as an issue of primary importance in international relations, along with global peace and security problems. There has been considerable ozone layer depletion in recent years, resulting in the extinction of many animals and plants, as well as to the occurrence of dangerous human illness. Every year acid rain destroys dozens of billions of hectares of fertile land (at a pace of about 24 hectares per minute), oceans are being depleted, as well as drinking water and that could cause epidemic outbreaks, etc. The protection of the environment and the rational use of natural resources are thus a global issue and the survival of human civilisation will depend on its successful addressing and regulation by international environmental law.

The concept of environment covers primarily elements related to the human living environment, including elements made by man in the course of his interaction with nature. They can be separated into three groups: the first one covers objects of the natural living environment – the flora and fauna; the second one covers the non-living environment – the soil (lithosphere), the water environment (hydrosphere), the airspace (atmosphere) and the near-Earth space environment; the third one covers the artificial environment created additionally by man – artificial lakes, dams, channels, embankments, etc.

International environmental law is among the new bodies of international law, although the negative effect of man on the environment has provoked the development of the first international instruments in this field back at the end of the 19 century, for example the 1897 Convention for the Protection of the Fur Seal among others. Development of international environmental law became after it was scientifically proven that the environment protection is a global issue; environmental law was thus gradually established as a separate body of law.

International environmental law governs primarily the following matters: 1) prevention and removal of the pollution of the marine environment (water, seabed, etc.); 2) preservation and rational use of living and non-living marine resources (fish and other animals, the so-called seven minerals, mineral resources, etc.); 3) protection prevention and removal of the water pollution of international rivers; 4) protection and rational use of the flora and fauna on land; 5) protection, conservation and rational use of the living resources of international rivers; 6) protection of the unique natural sites of the individual ecological systems; 7) protection of the earth environment against environmental pollution; 8) protection of the Earth’s atmosphere against environmental pollution or any other degradation; 9) protection of the near-Earth space, the outer space and the celestial bodies against pollution.

The international legal protection of the environment can be effective only when combining the relevant measures. Unified international cooperation should be thus established, combining national, regional and universal measures for prevention, control and removal of pollution, harm and other negative effects on the individual elements of the environment (land, water, airspace and outer space), etc.

The efforts of the States and the other subjects of international law should be now focused on the adoption of measures to: control the pollution caused by certain sources (tankers, waste processing technologies, motor vehicles, etc.); implement a regime for rational use of natural resources; develop a universal regime for protection of historical monuments and natural preserves; scientific and technological cooperation ensuring protection of the environment.

International environmental law develops within the general process of progressive international law development.[10] The international legal regulation of the environment protection activities of the States is influenced by the general principles and norms of international law which contribute directly or indirectly to the development and adoption of environment protection rules.

The international legal analysis of the major problems that are yet to be addressed is extremely important. For example, if greenhouse gas emissions (leading to abnormal warming of the Earth and the lower atmosphere) are not controlled, there could be rise of sea levels as a result of the melting polar caps; climate zones will move towards the poles; deserts will advance in more than 100 countries on all continents because of the increased drying of soils, and rainfalls will decrease; fresh water will further decrease as population growth continues steadily up[11], etc. Environmental problems and their regulation are thus the major issue of modern international relations.

Principles of international environmental law

Along with the general principles of international law which contain basic rules and guidelines for protection of the environment and prevention of its pollution, the following sectoral (special) principles under the international environmental law apply.[12]

The environmental protection principle requires States and the other subjects of international law to cooperate to effectively protect the environment and use natural resources rationally. This principle has gradually become an international practice and is embodied in many bilateral and multilateral treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty, 1967, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, etc.

The principle of rational use of natural resources provides that natural resources shall be exploited in a maximum sustainable way and that the States must implement activities for their effective regeneration and rehabilitation. This principle is embodied in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1973, and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, 1979. etc.

According to the principle of prevention of environmental pollution in studying and using the environment, the States must not discharge toxic substances or other substances in such quantities or concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless. The principle is reflected in the provisions of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, 1979, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matters, 1972, etc.

The principle of international responsibility for the protection of the environment provides for responsibility not only of the States but also of international organisations, legal persons and public organisations directly carrying out tests of and using the environment and its components. However, the prime responsibility is of the State as a primary subject of international law capable to impact the activity of other legal subjects. This principle is reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, the Vienna Convention relating to Civil Liability in the Field of Maritime Carriage of Nuclear Material, 1981, etc.

The “no harm” principle of protecting the environment in other States and in areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction is embodied in the Stockholm Declaration, 1972, and provides that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

The freedom to study and use the environment and its components is a principle providing that States and international organisations may, without any discrimination, carry out lawful scientific research activity. The principle is embodied in the Antarctic Treaty, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1959, the Moon Treaty, 1979, etc.

The principle of protection of the ecosystems of the world-wide ocean imposes a duty on the States to adopt all necessary measures to prevent and control pollution of the marine environment from any sources and to prevent serious harm to the marine environment caused by individual States as a result of pollution or otherwise. This principle is fully reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982.

The principle prohibiting military or any other harmful use of environmental modification techniques means in a condensed form a duty for States to adopt any necessary measures to prohibit effectively any environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State. The principle is embodied in the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.

 Sources of international environmental law

Unlike general international law, international environmental law starts and develops primarily as treaty law. A large number of international instruments exist in modern international relations. The majority are international treaties, multilateral ones being more than 150.[13]

Bilateral international treaties regulate matters concerning water basins, the flora and the fauna, veterinary control, animal and plant quarantining and control, etc. The principles of environmental law are generally embodied in those treaties and determine the conduct of States with regard to the protection of the environment.

Multilateral agreements with a large number of States – parties which undertake to apply their provisions are the major instrument of international law regulating environmental issues. Of particular importance are the agreements of global importance regulating the protection of environmental domains like the ozone layer, the world-wide ocean, the outer space, etc.

Regional multilateral cooperation is particularly thriving. Examples of successful initiatives include the 1979 Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, the Co-operation Agreement on the Forecast Prevention and Mitigation of Natural and Technological Disasters, 1987, etc. A number of treaties have been adopted under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, for example the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Aspect, 1991, the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, 1992, etc.

A number of multilateral agreements concerning other regions have also been adopted, for example the Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-Based Sources, 1974, the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea, 1992, the Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution, 1992, etc.

Universal international treaties regulate primarily the protection of the world-wide ocean (for example the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982), the protection of the international water systems, the protection of the environment against radioactive contamination (Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, 1963), protection of the Earth’s atmosphere (Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, 1979), protection of the flora and the fauna (Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, 1980) etc.

The Earth’s environment, with all its constituents, in which human civilisation exists, is the universal object of protection under international environmental law. From the perspective of international law, global natural resources can be separated into two categories – national and international. National natural resources, although falling under the jurisdiction of a given State, become increasingly dependent on the principles and norms of international law and the national law regime reflects the international (universal and regional) norms. This status lies in the fact that global environmental problems can only be addressed with efforts by all States, respecting primarily the norms of international environmental law. The number of international agreements which have regional or universal nature and are directly concerned with the protection of national natural resources increases.

On the other hand, international natural resources, depending on their location, are separated into common and divisible. Common are the resources designated by international agreements as common (high seas and airspace above, the outer space, etc.) and are beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. Divisible are the international natural resources which belong partially to or are used by two or more States (for example waters and the living resources of international rivers) and their legal regime is regulated by an international treaty (for example the Mannheim Convention regulating the legal regime of the Rhine River).


The environmental problems of the modern society appear to be among the most topical issues of our times and the fate of current and future generations depends to a great extent on the successful resolution of those problems. This requires, on one part, the pursuit of a flexible government policy which takes account of modern scientific and social practice achievements and, on the other hand, effective international cooperation.[14] Today, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, it appears that whether this be avoidance of nuclear catastrophe or prevention of environmental collapse, the indivisibility of the Earth’s ecosystem requires, unambiguously and definitively, concerted action world-wide. As time progressed, it became clear that no national effort per se could solve the problems. The concerted efforts of all States and nations have proven strictly necessary. The system of international relations is the only system of social relations within which those concerted efforts can be undertaken. The state and development of the human race depends most of all on preserving the life of people and their civilisation. That should be the mission of future global leaders and governments.

[1] Ascher, William. 1999. Why Governments Waste Natural Resources: Policy Failures in Developing Countries. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

[2] Benjamin, Paul. 2000. The Green Wars: Making Environmental Degradation a National Security Issue Puts Peace and Security on Risk. Policy analysis Nо 396

[3] Eavis, Paul. 2003. Strengthening Global Security Through Addressing the Root Causes of Conflict. London: Saferworld

[4] Tan, Andrew and J.D. Boutin. 2001. Non – Traditional Security Issues in Asia. Singapore: Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies

[5] Grocker, Chester and Fen Olser Hampson. 2000. Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict. Washinton D.C.: US Institute of Peace Press

[6] Ross, Michael. 2003. Natural Resources and Civil War. Los Angeles: UCLA Department of Political Science

[7] Клер, Майкъл. 2003. Войни за ресурси: Новият облик на световния конфликт, София: Изд. Захарий Стоянов

[8] Борисов, Орлин. 2013. Международно публично право, София, Изд.: Нова Звезда

[9] Велев, Светослав. 2016. Екологична сигурност, Изд.: Военна академия „Георги Стойков Раковски“

[10] Ibid

[11] Maurawietc, Laurent and D. Adamson. 2003. Demography and Security. RAND Corporation

[12] Раянова, Кремена. 2010. Принципи на международното екологично право, Изд.: „Ангел Кънчев“

[13] Пенчев, Георги. 2010. Източници на екологичното право на Република България, en Revista Crítica de Historia de las Relaciones Laborales y de la Política Social, n.os 1-2

[14] Ibid