On the Right to Peace and the Environment

War and Destruction / Kuwait

Peace and the environment are two equally wide-reaching topics, and consequently they could be studied separately and from a variety of perspectives. In this article, we will endeavour to demonstrate the relationship between peace and the environment starting with the idea that the preservation of both is significantly compromised by the current economic system. Our central premise is that both peace and an ecologically balanced environment are incompatible with contemporary economic practices.

The market economy, which has been the predominant system since the Age of Discovery took hold in the sixteenth century, is sustained by the incessant exploitation of natural resources and by violent conflict. Both our environmental exploitation and our conflicts have been becoming increasingly intense and sophisticated, to the point where we should worry whether two fundamental rights – those of peace and a healthy environment – are still guaranteed. However, mere concern and a formal guarantee of these rights are not enough to preserve them for the present and for future generations.

It is easy to make the connection between peace and the environment when we think back to various scenes from armed conflicts over different periods of history, and how these conflicts have led gradually to a growing number of natural disasters. These include forest fires, the contamination of river waters (such as in the Paraguayan War), the destruction of crops and the use of weapons of mass destruction, right through to the ultimate threat of nuclear war, as well as chemical and biological warfare.

This destruction in the countryside and the cities endangers our environment. Large-scale bombings during the Second World War as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in many cases caused irreparable damage. In terms of recent examples, we might mention the sadistic destruction of Dresden (in Germany, Second World War); of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in Japan, where people died as a result of the bombs decades after their detonation); the destruction of Baghdad and with it a cultural heritage of incalculable value to humanity, amongst other regrettable episodes.

This is not the only connection we can draw, however. There is another connection that tends to be less obvious to the public, but which has the capacity to cause continual destruction. We are referring to the need for war (and various forms of armed conflict) for the survival of our modern economic system.

Recognizing the scope of this article, we need to determine what is meant by peace, war, the environment and the economic system in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; or rather, the construction of the consumer society in which we live, which imbues us with values that promote the conservation of human life on the planet, and not the planet itself as many would claim.

It seems ever clearer that a global society founded on individualistic, self-centred, competitive and materialistic values, in a relationship of consumption and appropriation of everything (which is contradictory in itself) cannot prosper for long (especially as this society’s idea of prosperity is material and quantitative, and therefore unviable from an environmental and human point of view). Either we change the values that underlie our societies today, or we are finished.

It is important always to remember that these values are not natural, they are historical. Individualism, self-interest and unchecked acquisition of property are historical constructs that can generate subjectivities that may be and usually are assimilated. An example of this is the claim still made today to our ‘natural rights’, such as the right to property. The feeling of ownership and the need to acquire things are historical, cultural creations. It is essential that we recognize ourselves as historical beings in order to face the challenge of constructing new perceptions of the world – a new subjectivity – a challenge that is fundamental to the preservation of life.

To understand the relationship between the economic system and war, we should recall some important concepts from German ‘State Theory’. Our intention in recalling these concepts is to offer the reader some elements of critical analysis that will allow them to establish the logical connection not only to a modern system that essentially feeds off of war, but also to the need to construct a new political society that allows the development of international relations based on dialogue and cultural diversity.

A peace that is capable of preserving the environment is thus a path to be laid in overcoming the modern paradigm.

A symbolic date – 1492 – can help us to understand the foundations of European modernity. Why this date? There are two significant historical events that mark the arrival of modernity, and the first of these is the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America in 1492. That moment signalled the start of the process of military expansion, conquest and systematic exploration of what the Europeans came to term ‘natural resources’, thereby reducing the concept of the environment to the resources necessary to fuel European economic expansion. This idea of the human being as separate from nature and of nature as a source of resources for this rational (or unique) being has stayed with us to this day. This perception forms the basis of the accelerated and continuous environmental destruction that today, even with all the warnings of the consequences, still gathers pace.

This invasion that began in America stretched out across the other continents throughout the 500 years of European military and cultural hegemony.1When we speak of hegemonic Europe today, we are referring to the ‘West’ or to NATO: Western Europe, the United States and Canada.

At that time, when Europeans were seizing community lands from countless native peoples, we witnessed the first great genocide with millions of indigenous peoples murdered, cultures brought to extinction and the beginning of environmental destruction with its origins in Europe itself, from where the colonizers (who saw themselves as a civilizing force) had come.

The second important historic event that took place in 1492 was the expulsion of the Moors (Muslims) and the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. This marked the beginning of the formation of the Modern State and its territorial right to homogenize, normalize and enforce its hegemony.

The establishment of the Nation State together with European expansion founded the European universalism with which we are today, slowly and steadily, beginning to break.2WALERNSTEIN, Immanuel. O universalismo europeu: a retórica do poder. São Paulo: Editora Boitempo, 2008.

Modern myths are beginning to help us understand the foundations of societies that build themselves up on the exploitation of resources and people. Boaventura de Souza Santos mentions modern myths of barbarity, orientalism and nature as separate from the human being.3SOUZA SANTOS, Boaventura de. A Gramática do Tempo – para uma nova cultura política. São Paulo: Editora Cortez, 2006, pp. 181–190. As we have seen, of the myths that underlie the exploitation of the rich resources of the Americas by the invading Europeans who did not consider the savages (the native civilizations) to be people, the separation of man from nature is one ideological foundation of the system that endures to this day. Nature, seen as something separate from ‘our rational selves’, is there to be exploited by man, in order to provide for human society and its industry all the resources they will ever need.

One fundamental characteristic of the Modern State to be taken into consideration in understanding the system is the fact that the State is constituted through the affirmation of the king’s dominion in front of two powers that occupy distinct territorial spaces: the empire with its large territorial reach, and the local power of feudal lords. The logic that underlies the idea of external sovereignty (independence) and internal sovereignty (supremacy of power) has homogenizing, hegemonic characteristics that have caused the extinction of a range of peoples and cultures, as well as the (apparently temporary) submission of several other cultures.

For the power of the Nation State to be recognized, the behaviour of the population must be homogenized. The Modern State expels those who are the most different,4Using Spain as our example, the groups who were most different and were therefore expelled are the Muslims and Jews, and those that were the most homogenous were the various groups of ethnic Christian Iberians. and homogenizes the values and behaviours of those who are the least different. Therefore, to ensure that all the ethnic groups of the nascent Spanish State recognize the authority of the king, he cannot identify directly with any one of the groups.

The Modern State that has emerged in Europe claims to be hegemonic (or superior) in relation to the ‘other’ (i.e. foreign nations) and reproduces this hegemonic, intolerant logic internally with anyone who is different, given that one ethnic group always dominates the others.5There is still a variety of examples of this today: the Castilians over the Basques, Catalans, Galicians and Andalusians in Spain; and the English over the Scottish, Welsh and Irish in the United Kingdom. This kind of domination also takes place in several other States (Italy, France, etc.). In some States where the hegemony is less clear, there are still tensions. Belgium has attempted to resolve the historic hegemonies of the French and the Flemish through a highly complex asymmetrical federalism.

The logic that remains from this State and from the Law it has produced is therefore hegemonic and homogenizing, subordinating through force and ideology all those who resist its supremacy. The international order also followed this model, which has been expressed in the Treaty of Versailles and in the United Nations Charter’s Trusteeship Council.6On this subject, see SOUZA, Tatiana Ribeiro de. Capítulo XIII – Conselho de Tutela. In: BRANT, Leonardo Nemer Caldeira (ed.). Comentário à Carta das Nações Unidas. Belo Horizonte: CEDIN, 2008. pp. 1067–1096. Similarly, EU law (a post-war invention) also reproduces the same hegemonic model in imposing a specific economic system, based on a homogenizing right to property that ignores the immense diversity amongst the different ethnic groups that live on the European continent.

In summary, the process of proliferation of war and environmental devastation observes the following logic:

  1. The Modern State is hegemonic and homogenizing and is fundamentally violent;
  2. The State depends on its armed forces (to steal the riches of other peoples) and on its police (to monitor and punish those outside the economic system) in order to survive; both institutions have been continually developed and professionalized over the more-than-500 years since the start of the process of construction of modernity and formation of the state;
  3. The internal hegemonic model creates the bases of the capitalist economy: the national currency, the national banks and the repressive State apparatus, which all underlie the internal economy; and
  4. The State externally reproduces the internal hegemonic logic, while the internal economy oversteps its borders in search of natural, human and consumer resources, by way of military action and ideological manipulation.

Or rather, the economy of exploitation of nature and people that has taken its place in the past 500 years was based on the military conquest and occupation of the entire planet by the Europeans. War allowed them to conquer the lands from which the natural resources required for the industrial and technological development of Europe were (and still are) extracted. From the gold, wood and silver of the Americas to the Coltan of Africa,7Coltan is a mixture of minerals: Columbite (from which Niobium is extracted) and Tantalite (from which Tantalum is extracted). The interest that surrounds this mineral compound is due to its properties, which are necessary in the manufacture of the majority of portable electronics (mobile phones, laptops and on-board computers in cars). The Republic of the Congo is home to the largest reserves of Tantalite (in the form of Coltan), and for this and other reasons (of ethnicity, territory and politics) a civil war has been going on for years over ownership of the mines. According to the UN, 4 million people have already died in the dispute over the ‘blue gold’. Equally shocking is the fact that the Rwandan Army has registered earnings of more than US$250 million through trade in the valuable mineral, especially since there are no Coltan deposits in the Congo’s neighbouring country. The lack of protective measures for the environment, together with the difficulty involved in mining these rare and valuable minerals, are making the mining of Columbite-Tantalite complex and at high human and ethical cost. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan the system of exploiting natural resources through war is still in action on a large scale.

The economic expansion of Europe that began in the sixteenth century made war and ideological domination necessary then (as of course it still is now).

There are various historical examples that prove the hypothesis we have put forward. Amongst them are:

  1. The exploitation of the soil, topsoil and subsoil, i.e. the extraction of silver, copper and gold in Central and South America to finance the Spanish and Portuguese empires;
  2. The establishment of the territory of the United States of America, with the invasion of lands belonging to the native peoples in the North and the invasion and annexation of part of the Mexican territory (which is oil-rich);
  3. The mining of gold in Minas Gerais (Brazil) to be sent to Portugal, which helped to finance the industrial revolution in England as the Portuguese imported its textile produce;
  4. Germany’s territorial expansion, in pursuit of the natural resources that had been denied to the country and its industrialists by the Treaty of Versailles;
  5. Japan’s territorial expansion into Korea and China, in pursuit of space and natural resources for its industry;
  6. The invasion and partitioning of Africa into many artificial States in order to exploit its enormous natural resources;
  7. The invasion and partitioning of the Middle East into various artificial States as puppets for the continued exploitation of their natural resources; and
  8. Most recently, the invasion of Iraq in search of oil (which brought an enormous environmental burden due to the burning of oil fields.

We could write pages and pages describing events that have occurred in the last 500 years of European hegemony, which brought with them the capitalist economy and accelerated environmental damage. Instead, let us now analyse some of the military consequences of the economic development resulting from the Industrial Revolution. This expansion did not bring improvements across the board in terms of quality of life for the population. Enormous social differences created industrial cities that were bursting at the seams and rife with inequality. The fruits of the economic developments were appropriated by a few select people, the same few people who used the State structure to guarantee the security of their accumulated wealth, and that now need the state military apparatus to expand their businesses (in pursuit of a cheap workforce, new markets and natural resources). We might think of the world wars of the last century as results of the economic development of the nineteenth century, in which the economic powers were competing for space. We can cite some significant cases that reflect that competition for space, such as Nazism and Italian Fascism, as well as their equivalents in other countries, especially Japan.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was clear competition for space between the six biggest national economies on the planet (and of course the public companies of those countries). On the one hand were the United States, United Kingdom and France, with plenty of space for exploiting natural resources, workforces and markets (in their many colonies), and on the other were the important industrial powers of Germany (the second largest industrial economy in 1910), Japan and Italy, with all in pursuit of the same space.

The First and Second World Wars were the upshot of nineteenth-century imperialism and of the great industrial powers’ arrangement of their areas of influence and exploitation. Germany, Italy and Japan (represented by the interests of their businessmen and the political elite with connections to them) thus sought the spaces that the United States, United Kingdom and France had in turn already taken.8Of course, we are not ignoring the mid-sized powers that also played a part in the global division of resources to a greater or lesser extent at different times, such as Portugal, Spain, Holland and Belgium. This international conflict between the capitalist industrial powers was given a makeshift resolution in the post-Second World War context, whereby a united Western Europe ‘became necessary’, under North American domination, in order to prevent socialist expansion under Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.

The supposed enemies of the Second World War are today united in the G7. They are exactly the same countries: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, with the addition of Canada, which was officially part of the British Commonwealth during the War.

Capitalism, war and environmental decline in the era of European dominance are irrevocably linked. Peace would seem to be an impossibility under the current system. Although the traditional conflicts of wars between Nation States via their armed forces are in decline, they are giving way to other forms of war, such as civil wars, guerrilla resistance movements, ‘terrorist’ activity, urban warfare and religious conflicts (e.g. Iraq), unconventional warfare (e.g. Afghanistan), drug trafficking and organized or unorganized crime (in the world’s big cities).

If the globalization of a capitalist system underpinned by a questionable liberal representative ‘democracy’ is making war between Nation States for natural resources unnecessary, the global economic system, as we have demonstrated, needs armed conflict to maintain the resources it has appropriated, obtain new ones and keep any individual or group that compromise its interests under control.

As mentioned above, conventional armed conflicts (between Nation States) appear to be disappearing; however, the same cannot be said of violence (for resources and power) within States, which can in part be explained by the spread of liberal ‘democracy’ and the globalization of the economy. What has happened is that war between Nation States with liberal-democratic politics and capitalist economies has been replaced by efficient ideological control based on the ‘legitimacy’ of liberal representative ‘democracies’, which are compromised by private financing of political campaigns, widespread corruption and disinformation generated by a press controlled by economic conglomerates. Decisions are apparently ‘democratic’ because they are made by elected parliaments who govern with a majority of (manipulated) public opinion.

Luis Barrios9BARRIOS, Luis. “O difícil diálogo entre estratificação social e a sociedade do risco”. In: VARELLA, Marcelo Dias (ed.) Direito, Sociedade e Riscos – a sociedade contemporânea vista a partir da idéia de risco. Brasília: Uniceub e Unitar, 2006. cites two examples amongst many that illustrate what we have laid out above. In his article, he tackles the export of environmental risk to countries that are more economically fragile and have liberal representative democracies, while the significant profits remain in the hegemonic countries (especially Western Europe and North America).

The first case has been taking place in Uruguay since 1998. Following the example of Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, the elected Uruguayan government admits receiving investments from European countries (in this case ENCE of Spain and METSÄ-BOTNIA of Finland) for reforestation in order to produce paper. Amongst the arguments that underlie the propaganda, which have won over public opinion in support of the government’s decision, are investment protection treaties and the carbon emission trading put in place under the protection of the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ of the Kyoto Protocol. These investment protection treaties, Luis Barrios informs us, have the power to neutralize the social mobilization that takes place when traditional cultures are displaced and when ethnic communities are moved out so that eucalyptus and pine trees can be planted on their lands. Even more absurd is that these plantations are then classified as forests by the Forest Stewardship Council, thereby authorizing the countries that own the trees to continue emitting greenhouse gases. In 2005, a Swedish company (STORA-ENSO) began planting woodland in Uruguay under the pretence of purchasing 90,000 hectares (220,000 acres) to plant pine and eucalyptus trees and set up a paper factory on the banks of one of the main tributaries of the Uruguay River.

This practice of exporting environmental risk by transferring the most harmful processes in paper production to countries considered the ‘least economically developed’ (and least socially, culturally and politically developed as far as the Europeans are concerned) is not the sole example:

The damage caused by open-air mining in Peru, Chile and Argentina; the construction of chemical plants that dump their polluting waste into rivers and onto people’s land or stores it in the factories themselves; the invasion of GM crops in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, followed by the corresponding advertising featuring gifts of second-generation seed drills; the siege of fresh water reserves, in particular the Guarani Aquifer; the privatization of natural reserves with the aim of creating new species for nanotechnology patents; the export of toxic waste from various origins. In conclusion, a never-ending list of risky decisions and dangerous ventures underway. 10BARRIOS, Luis. Op. Cit. pp. 235–236.

All these actions are being made today by elected governments who have the support of public opinion, which is taken in by the ideology (belief) that market prosperity fuelled by foreign investment will promote social equality, environmental protection and collective security (21). Public opinion’s silent acceptance of all the action taken by elected governments that goes against the interests of the electorate is a subject that needs to be researched and closely analysed. The examples are numerous:

Between 1998 and 1999, 600 tonnes of contaminated cottonseeds, some 4,000 kg of pesticides and unknown quantities of fungicidal bacteria, all out of date, were dumped at a location near to the city of Ybycuí, 120 km (75 miles) from the capital of Paraguay. The toxic waste came from the United States and belonged to the chemical-industrial company DELTA & PINE LAND Co. The journalist Carlos Amorim described and documented the case in his 2003 article ‘The seeds of death’. Paraguay became a signatory of the Rotterdam Convention in November 1998. Besides the evident toxicity of the waste, some of the substances taken near to Ybicuí and dumped there were listed explicitly in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure for monitoring circulation. The Paraguayan authorities’ openly complicit treatment of the crime after the first death as a result of the toxic waste is a clear indicator of the lack of protection that people in less developed countries have when faced with the issue of pollution by powerful multinational corporations that negotiate directly with governments and unscrupulous individuals.11Ibid.

It is important to note that Paraguay was, on this occasion, yet another new liberal representative democracy with a tightly controlled media, as has been the case in many other examples.

War today is not just a necessity for the economic system’s pursuit of natural resources and its efforts to maintain them. The arms industry has become big business, and it is fuelled by war. The system has become even more complex now that war is necessary not only to get access to resources, but even when these resources are not required, or are even militarily or ideologically secured, war is justified by the need to sell military equipment. It is war for war’s sake.

And it is not just the arms industry that benefits from war; rather, an entire private services sector has been created to enable us to be at war. At the moment the system is adapting: military action to secure resources; military action to maintain resources already acquired; military action to repress people outside the economic system; military action to make use of the produce of the arms industry; and finally military action to employ private war services.

There is an abundance of examples, and you just have to cast a glance at the daily papers, especially relating to the constant conflicts on the African continent, for more.

José Luiz Quadros de Magalhães is a Professor of Law at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Tatiana Ribeiro de Souza is a doctoral candidate at Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Many thanks to Alex Higson for this translation.


—BARRIOS, Luis. “O difícil diálogo entre estratificação social e a sociedade do risco”. In: —VARELLA, Marcelo Dias (ed.) Direito, Sociedade e Riscos – a sociedade contemporânea vista a partir da idéia de risco. Brasília: Uniceub e Unitar, 2006.
—SOUZA SANTOS, Boaventura de. A Gramática do Tempo – para uma nova cultura política. São Paulo: Editora Cortez, 2006. p. 181–190. http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan. Accessed on: 17/02/2010
—WALLERSTEIN, Immanuel. O universalismo europeu: a retórica do poder. São Paulo: Editora Boitempo, 2008.

  1 comment for “On the Right to Peace and the Environment

  1. Very much appreciate the scholarship-research and thought. I am aware of such processes, but it is very informative to have such detailed, particular analyses…case histories so to speak and so on. Thank you.

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