International Law, the Paradox of Plenty and the Making of Resource-Driven Conflict

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Dr Eliana Cusato, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex, has published a paper titled ‘International law, the paradox of plenty and the making of resource-driven conflict’.

This article intervenes in legal debates on the relationship between natural resource extraction and armed conflict. Since the 1990s there has been a proliferation of international/global initiatives to end wars fuelled through the exploitation of ‘conflict resources’ and improve resource management in fragile, conflict and post-conflict countries. Examples of such developments include the use of commodity sanctions by the UN Security Council to restrict trade in ‘conflict resources’ and multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative. International courts have also dealt with resource exploitation in conflict situations (e.g. the International Court of Justice in the Armed Activities Case) expanding the scope of international provisions, such as prohibition of pillage.

While the consensus in the field is that these international interventions have improved the governance of natural resources in war-torn and post-conflict countries (although enforcement remains a key concern), the capacity of the law to engage with questions of resource access and distribution, which may be at the root of these conflicts, is rarely discussed. Yet, as the peacebuilding literature tells us, a failure to address socio-economic grievances may weaken the chances of positive peace and reproduce inequalities important to conflict causation. In other words, although the objective of normative/institutional interventions is to reinforce international peace and security, they seem to ignore a crucial part of the picture. This is the puzzle at the core of the article.

Until now international legal scholarship has focused on ways to improve the protection of natural resources in conflict and post-conflict scenarios to reinforce the chances of creating more stable and sustainable societies. Limited, if any, attention has been paid to the political, economic, and theoretical assumptions underpinning international rules and how these assumptions shape current responses to violence/conflict in the Global South. The aim of this article is to fill this gap, by exploring the influence of the resource curse theory (or paradox of plenty) upon legal and institutional developments in this field.

The overall argument is that the uncritical acceptance of the paradox plenty (and its hidden propositions) by scholars, institutions, and civil society lead to a marginalisation of distributive concerns at the root of violent conflict in the Global South. To demonstrate the pervasiveness of the theory in legal practices and the problems with its understanding of the causes and dynamics of resource wars, I use the Sierra Leonean and Liberian TCs as a case study.

Ultimately, this article is a reminder of the risks of accepting a certain vision of the world as a given and using it to develop policies and normative solutions without questioning the structures and values upon which that vision is premised. It is an attempt ‘to defamiliarize these ways of imagining the world and is a first step in addressing the argument that understanding the world in that way is somehow normal’.

This article is published in Leiden Journal of International Law and is available here.

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