Toxic Remnants of War: Update on Berlin Legal Workshop and US Meetings

Toxic Remnants of War: Update on Berlin Legal Workshop and US Meetings

This is the first post on the Toxics Blog in several weeks as it has been a particularly busy period for the TRW Project. The period began with the legal workshop in Berlin, which aimed to review the state of legal protection for the environment in times of conflict. Following Berlin, we conducted a series of meetings in the US: meeting with states and NGOs on the fringes of the Arm’s Trade Treaty negotiations in New York, and later a series of meetings with NGOs in Washington DC. More prosaically, in the Manchester office work has been underway on both developing and applying the methodology for assessing military substances for their health and environmental risks.

Berlin Workshop
The legal workshop organised by the TRW Project in June 2012 reviewed aspects of international humanitarian, human rights and environmental law that are relevant to the environment in armed conflict. As with the recent ICRC review published in November 2011, leading experts on the environment and armed conflict concluded that legal protection for the environment in conflict is limited and should be addressed, a fact that has been recognised in legal circles for some time. Crucially it has lagged far behind international and domestic environmental law, even as the potential for significant environmental damage during conflict has increased.

Of particular concern is the threshold for damage under existing IHL which, in addition to being poorly defined, has been criticised for being so high as to be unrealistic. An example is the cumulative requirement in Article 35 of Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions to protect the environment from “widespread, long-term and severe damage”.

Topics discussed by the experts included regulatory frameworks to assess and restrict the most damaging materials during weapons development, the role and applicability of the precautionary principle and the responsibilities of belligerents and affected states for practical assistance to manage toxic remnants of war. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of work remains to be done to document the range, environmental behaviour, humanitarian impact and toxicity of particular materials. The findings and discussions that took place during the workshop are being compiled into a report that should be available to download later in the summer.

TRW Substance assessment
The scientific research activities of the TRW project have so far focused on desk research into contaminants from military activities and their sources. Our work has sought to document substances of concern gleaned from academic, military, regulatory, NGO and other literature sources. A methodology is in development to assess substances for environmental damage and human exposure by systematically collating physico-chemical and toxicological data, in addition to data on the extent of their military use.

Physical and chemical properties of substances can be used in combination with computer models known as Quantitative Structure Activity Relationships (QSAR) to predict their toxicity and behaviour in the environment. QSAR are models that predict the properties of chemicals based on their molecular structure, the models being used by the TRW Project were developed by regulatory bodies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPI-Suite) and the OECD (QSAR Toolbox). The QSAR Toolbox is used for assessing substances under the EU Regulations for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH).

QSAR methodology can only predict behaviour reliably for organic compounds, therefore we are working on an alternative methodology for assessing the toxicological and environmental problems arising from inorganic substances by studying the different forms a substance will take in the environment under different conditions.

This stage of the project involves screening materials to build an evidence base to guide future work both on regulatory models and with regard to potential field measurements, exposure studies and epidemiology. It is anticipated that initial outputs of the assessment will be available later this year. The data will then be subjected to further analysis and peer review before coming to solid conclusions regarding the ranking of substances according to their potential health and environmental harm.

TRW US visit
In early July we organised a series of meetings in the US to promote the project and test some of the concepts on NGOs and states that are active in the related fields of humanitarian disarmament and environmental advocacy.

Meetings on the fringes of the UN Arms Trade Treaty negotiations
The first half of the week was spent at the UN on the fringes the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiations. The concentration of diplomats and civil society actors provided a useful opportunity for intensive meetings. The response to the TRW concept from both states and campaigners was favourable and encouraging. Some commentators said the idea ‘definitely had merit’ and others gave constructive advice regarding the importance of continuing to build a strong evidence base before making any big public assertions. Caution was advised regarding possible state reluctance on retroactive responsibility for environmental remediation in any future TRW instrument.

Meetings with public health experts
Beyond the UN, the TRW Project met with two experts in the realm of public health. Firstly, Dr Victor Sidel, an expert in the field of war and public health and a strong advocate for diminishing the impacts of wars on human health and the environment. We later met with Liz Borkowski a research associate at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University and active advocate, through her writings for the ‘Pumphandle’ public health blog, of harm prevention in the US domestic sphere through better public health strategies.

While the meetings were conducted separately, both experts stressed the importance of a strong evidence base in order to prove the harm caused by military related substances and activities. However they echoed one another and other meetings we held in suggesting that given the difficulty of epidemiology, exposure studies and extensive field studies in conflict or post-conflict settings, that a precautionary approach to substances with proven toxicity would be acceptable as long as other causes of public health problems, such as poor sanitation or nutrition could be reasonably excluded.

NGO meetings in Washington DC
Washington DC provided another useful opportunity to connect with a variety of NGOs and professionals in related fields to TRW. The focus of the visit was a US re-run of the Berlin legal workshop, which was kindly hosted by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI). Additional meetings were held with Friends of the Earth US, Global Green USA and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

ELI workshop
The workshop at ELI generated an interesting discussion on different facets of TRW.

An important and recurring debate took place on whether the definition of TRW should be broad (i.e. encompassing military activities during and outside times of conflict) in order to encompass a wide variety of stakeholders, or whether it should be narrow (i.e. only focusing on activities occurring during conflict), in order to provide an achievable set of goals. One way to resolve this debate would be to keep the definition broad when developing the conceptual framework, then explore more specific definitions for particular purposes.

An example of this lies in the current form of the TRW definition. At present, military bases in home countries and overseas theatres of operations are theoretically encompassed by the definition, however in the event of a future legal instrument on TRW, only the latter might be subject to regulation. Topically, another point raised regarded the importance of Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) governing troops in a foreign country. While SOFAs sometimes provide clauses regarding environmental protection, the extent of that protection is ambiguous.

Carl Bruch of the Environmental Law Institute also touched upon the importance of securing industrial sites in order to avoid post conflict public health and environmental concerns arising from looting. Additionally, financial responsibility for cleanup in such a scenario remains an open question.

Friends of the Earth – USA
The meeting with FoE USA was very enlightening. President, Erich Pica highlighted work currently being undertaken by some NGOs campaigning to ensure the expansion of the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to encompass the act of going to war – just as it currently encompasses environmentally detrimental activities such as investment in coal extraction overseas. Additionally, we learnt of FoE’s experience in dealing with morally charged environmental campaigns when coupled with constraints on developing an evidence base. It was argued that, while it is imperative to have a strong evidence base it is also important to have passionate campaigners willing to advocate for the matter and, even more important to be able to state a strong moral case.

Global Green USA
The meeting with Paul Walker started with an insight into the work of Global Green for the safe decommissioning of chemical weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention. On matters closer to TRW, Paul placed great emphasis on the extent of military related pollution in the US, particularly surrounding bases – much gleaned from his experience of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). Additionally he mentioned the destructive practice of using open air burning and detonation (OB/OD) to destroy unexploded ordinance and obsolete munitions. More positively, Paul touched upon what he saw as a growing trend in lifestyle costing in new weapon design. This growing military awareness of the long lived impacts of weapons and military activities has one clear embodiment in the work of Chemical and Material Risk Management Directorate (CMRMD) of the US Department of Defense. CMRMD works on the basis of maintaining ‘watch lists’ of potentially hazardous substances and materials used by the US military and advocating safer replacements.

Physicians for Social Responsibility
The very engaging meeting with PSR, the US affiliates of IPPNW, was the end of a busy but immensely useful week. As in the case of FoE, this was an opportunity to learn about the work of the PSR Environment and Health department, particularly on their Toxics campaign and to determine scope for future cooperation on cross cutting interests.

Conclusions and future work
The main conclusion from the trip was a reminder of the debate at the ELI workshop regarding the breadth of potential work under the TRW Project. The trip affirmed our current two pronged approach to the matter: firstly keeping the conceptual framework broad for the time being, while secondly focusing on our ongoing technical and scientific review of substances of concern. This evidence base is necessary in the immediate term in order to guide the basis of further legal and policy based work, and even more vitally to guide studies of the impacts of TRW in the field.

Dr Mohamed Ghalaieny is a researcher on the TRW Project.


    1 Comment

    1. Pat Sanchez
      August 9, 2012

      Excellent, a very comprehensive account of a lot of work. Well done!


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