2014 and the way ahead on toxic remnants of war

Posted by on Dec 20, 2013 in Blog, Legal, News, Policy | No Comments
2014 and the way ahead on toxic remnants of war

As 2013 draws to a close, a few reflections on the scope of our work seem in order. It also seems like a good time to look ahead to 2014 and the issues we will be working on.

We launched this project out of concern over the humanitarian and environmental impact of pollution generated as a result of military activities. Toxic remnants of war seemed like a useful catch all phrase for what is a hugely diverse topic. Since 2012 we have been looking into sources of toxic remnants of war and those factors that influence the risks they pose to public and environmental health.


Understandably munitions seemed an obvious place to start, not merely their use in conflict but the impacts generated by testing, training and disposal. It is no great secret that many common constituents of weapons are toxic for ecosystems and humans. Work has been underway for many years on efforts to better understand the risks they pose and to consider alternatives. Thus far the voice of civil society has been largely absent from the international dialogue, indeed the dialogue has mostly considered means of ensuring the sustainability of firing ranges.

At issue is the complex question of what constitutes an unacceptable level of risk to human or environmental health: toxic for what, or whom, and under which settings or in which circumstances, and in what quantities or which mixtures? How much should states understand about the hazards materials pose to different organisms and in which environments or settings? How much should states be required to know about the quantities of pollutants left behind when munitions are used? Within this, further complexity emerges. A recent example was a new explosive mix for insensitive munitions – energetic materials designed to be less liable to detonate accidentally – which was unexpectedly found to release significant quantities of ammonium perchlorate when detonated:

“In March of 2012, analysis of residues following detonation testing of a newly fielded insensitive munition revealed that large quantities of perchlorate would be released to the environment (Walsh et al. 2013). Our data resulted in the cessation of training with these munitions, preventing the use of over 380,000 rounds.  Had these munitions been used, over 3 trillion liters of water (3 x 1012 L) would have been contaminated with perchlorate above US drinking water standards.  Perchlorate is a highly soluble, persistent, and mobile contaminant.  The life cycle environmental assessment [which does not currently consider detonation efficiency of the rounds in a fielded condition nor post-detonation residues] indicated no significant impact would result from the use of these rounds.  Obviously, the time to test the environmental impact of munitions is before they are fielded.”  Walsh et al, Quantifying Energetics Contamination for Live-fire Training on Military Ranges, Proceedings of the 2013 European Conference on Defence and the Environment.

Other researchers have asked whether there should be a blacklist of substances that, by virtue of their toxicity or environmental behaviour, should not be used in munitions. An interesting question and one element of a dialogue that we believe should take place; particularly if the standards that are increasingly applied to civil uses of hazardous substances have established norms applicable to military applications. Such an approach would not only benefit public and environmental health but would ultimately also be of benefit to militaries concerned about the environmental costs of their activities.


The norms and standards applied to the conduct of military activities are increasingly under scrutiny, for example in the use of explosive force in populated areas. One source of TRW that has the potential to generate significant levels of harm is the deliberate targeting of industrial facilities. At present, IHL is rather underdeveloped in this respect, limiting itself to dangerous forces such as dams, dykes and nuclear power stations, or infrastructure critical to the survival of the civilian population.

The experience of conflicts in Serbia, Iraq and Lebanon has demonstrated that industrial sites all too often become targets, and often following opaque calculations of military necessity. Further, once damaged or destroyed, such sites may create opportunities for looting or impact communities distant from the conflict through transboundary pollution. Again there is room for dialogue on this issue and a review of state practice seems timely. Industrial attacks in contemporary conflict seem increasingly difficult to justify when the potential for environmental harm is so great.


Beyond efforts to reduce the pollution generated by military activities or conflict, we have shown that opportunities also exist to improve the means through which environmental risks are assessed, managed and monitored.

“Environmental impacts and associated health risks are difficult to prevent during conflict and may affect survivors well into post-conflict reconstruction and development. Immediate post-conflict hot spots are often the focus of UNEP efforts and humanitarian response. However, the long-term risks, from persistent contaminants, destroyed infrastructure, and degraded natural resources, are equally important to address during peacebuilding.” Salting the Earth: Environmental health challenges in post-conflict reconstruction.

Gaps in capacity and expertise exist for improving efforts to reduce the impact on public health of a range of environmental hazards generated by conflict. We would urge states to consider how the range of actors involved in such work could be diversified, and that funding for medium and long term environmental capacity be considered. Beyond practical measures, greater scrutiny of the existing obligations on both aggressor and affected states to ensure the protection of populations from these hazards should take place. Where they are found lacking, new systems should be developed. These could be informed by human rights and environment law.

Finally, there is scope for improving environmental best practice in a number of fields relevant to toxic remnants, for example in demining operations and munitions management.

The way ahead

During 2014, we would like to see the toxic remnants of war concept flourish and develop. As such, we are delighted to have begun a collaboration with the organisations Article 36, IKV Pax Christi, Norwegian Peoples Aid and IALANA to take forward work on the issues outlined above. More on this next year.

We firmly believe that there is a place for environmental concerns in the field of humanitarian disarmament and we welcome cooperation with other organisations, institutions or individuals who feel the same way.

Wishing you a happy and peaceful festive season from all at the Toxic Remnants of War Project.

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