Statements on Toxic Remnants of War at UN First Committee 2013

Statements on Toxic Remnants of War at UN First Committee 2013

Five states (Costa Rica, Norway, South Africa, Austria and Ireland) raised the issues of toxic remnants of war and conflict and the environment earlier this week at the United Nations General Assembly First Committee. The statements were given during the thematic debate on conventional weapons.

The Toxic Remnants of War Project (TRWP) warmly welcomes these interventions as a first step towards further debate on the means of reducing civilian harm from environmental pollution associated with conflict. An NGO statement, which the TRWP prepared with the International Network on Explosive Weapons, was also delivered at the First Committee, and is available here.

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IKV Pax Christi’s Alexandra Hiniker delivering the joint statement from INEW and the TRWP, credit: ControlArms

Costa Rica’s statement was the most wide-ranging of the five, with their delegation noting that:

“The toxic remnants of war present many risks to civilians, both during and after conflict. There are also few obligations on States to assess the toxicity and environmental behavior of the materials used in weapons, nor to monitor their human health impact or environmental behavior after use. Therefore, Costa Rica finds it crucial that more attention is paid to the links between civilian health, environmental harm and sustainable development. 

Costa Rica’s reference to sustainable development formed part of a wider assessment of the current weakness of the framework for the protection of the environment during and after conflict, they observed that:

The United Nations Environment Programme has argued that Articles 35 and 55 of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions do not effectively protect the environment during armed conflict due to the stringent and imprecise threshold required to demonstrate damage. This is a long-standing weakness that must be addressed. 

Viewing the issue from a sustainable development perspective, and linking humanitarian and environmental concerns, Costa Rica concluded by arguing for a stronger environmental perspective within the developing Protection of Civilians framework:   

Costa Rica believes that the connections between humanitarian and environmental considerations should be considered, and that both should be included in the Protection of Civilians framework. The international community needs to work together to resolve the problems associated with the toxic remnants of war. We reiterate our view that environmental considerations are of great importance in efforts to improve the protection of civilians.”

Norway’s statement was more narrowly focused but reflected ongoing concerns over the current imbalance between the requirement to evaluate the potential risks from toxic materials in civil applications and the lack of regulation and oversight for military uses. Key to this is concern over the potential for civilian exposure in conflict and post-conflict settings:  

…let me briefly touch upon the question of toxic remnants of war. Some substances commonly used in conventional munitions could potentially be harmful to health due to their toxicity or environmental behaviour. However, to this date, considerable gaps in our knowledge about the risks such toxic remnants of war may pose to civilians. The international community should address these questions, including the data gaps on toxicity, environmental behaviour and civilian exposure, through research, monitoring and assessments.”

South Africa’s statement echoed that of Norway’s, again reiterating the risks posed by the substances in conventional weapons and calling for greater understanding of the health and environmental risks they pose:  

…it is common cause that, from an environmental perspective, certain substances used in conventional weapons can be hazardous to human health. In this regard, my delegation is of the view that we should support efforts aimed at increasing our knowledge of the potential humanitarian impact of such substances in order to better understand the civilian health and environmental legacy of conflict.

Austria too highlighted concerns over the toxicity of conventional weapons in an intervention that discussed the need to increase the protection of civilians. They focused specifically on depleted uranium, calling for more research on its potential impact:

Another area of concern is the use of ammunitions from depleted uranium. Recent studies suggest that the radiation as well as the heavy metal toxicity of uranium accumulate to a significant long term detrimental effect on the environment and people of contaminated areas. Since scientific evaluation seems not to be final at this stage, Austria is in favour of continuing research in this area.”

Finally,  Ireland reflected on the diverse and dynamic field of humanitarian disarmament and praised the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations. In particular Ireland welcomed the spirit of constructive engagement between states, and between states and civil society:

“The same principles which provide the foundation for the Arms Trade Treaty must also be applied to all topics of debate in relation to conventional weapons. Whether with regard to anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, transparency measures, the environmental impact of weapons, or the use of incendiary weapons, to name a few, our focus must always be to ensure  respect for international humanitarian law and human rights, including  the rights of women.  These same principles must also apply to weapons which will be developed in the future, such as fully autonomous weapons systems.

Constructive engagement and debate is essential to ensure that our actions comply with the principles which underlie the United Nations and international law. Ireland is committed to taking the conventional weapons agenda forward on that basis, and we look forward to engaging with states and with civil society in all relevant fora.”

Previous resolutions, such as the Non-Aligned Movement’s long-standing Observance of environmental norms and four increasingly well supported resolutions on depleted uranium weapons have helped establish that environmental concerns and principles are relevant to the First Committee. Nevertheless, conflict and the environment may benefit from a multi-faceted approach internationally, covering as it does environmental law, human rights law, international humanitarian law and arms control. The TRWP therefore welcomes debate in a range of relevant forums on initiatives for improving the protection of civilians and the environment during and after conflict.

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