Searching for Sombath

Where is Laotian environmental activist, Sombath Somphone? The short answer is that nobody is telling; the longer answer lies in the phrase ‘environmental confrontations’ which gathers in the wide range of conflict that has some element of the environment at its core; these can range from over-fishing, riparian access, to animal rights, wildlife poaching, illegal timber-felling and environmental campaigns of all types.

Compared to deaths from armed combat or homicide the tally of human deaths from ‘environmental confrontations’ is extremely low – though growing exponentially – which of course is no reflection on the huge amount passion and commitment involved; for instance in November, 2011, the FBI placed animal rights activist, Daniel Andreas San Diego, on its list of the 31 ‘Most Wanted Terrorists’, while the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group have taken direct-confrontation to new levels.

We have become accustomed to monitoring the ‘high politics’ of oil, gas and water as part of national security with disputes labelled as ‘resource wars’, but fresh areas of concern are emerging that are influenced by new ‘externalities’.

Actually the phrase ‘resource wars’ is a complete ‘red herring’ because no country has gone to war specifically over resources which is quite different from saying that resources have not played a role in many conflicts, both large and small, throughout history. One recent UN report suggests that 18 of the 35 conflicts recorded since 2000 have been about or fuelled by issues to do with the exploitation and control of natural resources, as opposed to wars fought over issues of ideology or territorial security.

Furthemore the coinage of the term ‘resource war’ has been steadily debased as it is now applied to minerals, oil, land and rhino horn, to ivory, water, timber, wildlife and more: on one hand this reflects the increasing fragmentation and motivation of conflicts linked to natural resources while on the other hand it contributes to a lack of focus and prioritising.

Around this opaque world float other phrases such as ‘natural security’, ‘environmental security’ and at its more extreme, ‘eco-war’; when these are joined with terms like ‘threat multiplier’ and ‘drivers’, as well as interpretations of ‘militarisation’ versus ‘securitisation’, the room for misinterpretation is broadened.

As for Sombath Somphone his case has been raised by the US State Department and countless NGOs around the world; however the Laotian authorities have given no hint about what happened after Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint on a Saturday afternoon in Vientiane as he returned home from his office last December. It looks like a state kidnap if recent evidence of the state-sponsored killings of environmental campaigners in other countries is a guide.
Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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