Why toxic remnants of war?

Why toxic remnants of war?

Recent questions from academics about both the origin of our project, and its rationale, have provided an opportunity for us to consider the value of toxic remnants of war as a frame for improving civilian and environmental protection from conflict pollutants.

Our approach is simple. Conflict creates pollution and enables polluters. Pollution can have a detrimental effect on human and environmental health. Therefore in order to protect civilians and the environment, we believe that parties to a conflict must seek to minimise the generation of conflict pollutants. They should also be obliged to assess and monitor the risks those pollutants pose to human health and the environment, and take steps to mitigate damage and assist those affected.

Having worked on depleted uranium weapons for many years, our thinking and approach had always maintained one foot in the field of environmental protection, and one foot in that of humanitarian disarmament. While there is commonality between the two fields, there are also differences, one fundamental one being the difference between the slow harm of pollution versus the acute risks of explosive harm. As a civilian harm narrative forms the basis for all humanitarian disarmament campaigning, the distinction between slow harm and acute harm is worth exploring.


The tempo of harm

It’s easy to demonstrate harm from a land mine, or a cluster munition or an ill-considered artillery barrage on a densely populated area. Civilians are injured, civilians die. Causality is clearly defined. But what of exposure to a pollutant that helps induce a cancer? In a country without access to expensive chemotherapy treatment or drugs, survival rates may be desperately low. What of a congenital birth defect that kills soon after birth for lack of effective treatment, or that requires lifelong care and support?

In both cases – explosive and toxicant – the ultimate outcome is the same, death or disability. The difference lies in the tempo of harm and whether causality can be easily defined. Which of several genetic mutations required for tumour development did the substance cause, and when? Which of the substances the mother was exposed to during pregnancy caused developmental problems in her foetus, and is there any way to find out? Simply counting casualties is not sufficient. Organisations or individuals tempted to judge the merit of work in the field by the standards and approaches of explosive hazards alone run the risk of missing the point.

Work on harm from pollutants requires different forms of ‘proof’: it requires proof that a substance, or mixture of substances, can cause the health problems reported, it requires proof that it is in the environment, and it requires proof that it is getting into people. Sometimes it might be possible to link a specific health outcome with a specific exposure but that often requires an enormous amount of detective work. It’s not the smoking gun you need, rather it’s who the gun was aimed at, what it was firing and what the damage it caused was. There is complexity in this but that should never excuse inaction.

This tripartite model of determining harm is applicable to a wide range of pollutants and typically necessitates a mixture of desk and field analysis to build cases. While the pollution sources that can lead to this form of slow harm vary widely, the fact that the methodology for exploring their civilian impact follows similar principles, suggests that a common approach on conflict pollution is not only practical but is also desirable.

To date, campaigns and research into military or conflict pollution have tended to be issue or source specific, for example the campaign on Agent Orange, communities affected by burn pits or activism around polluting military bases. But, if the approach to assessing harm is common across all these issues, perhaps this also justifies the use of a generalised common frame for advocacy, one where the audience are better able to understand the slow harm narrative as being distinct from acute harm.

What’s in a name?

So, returning to the question of ‘why toxic remnants of war?’ The journalist Thomas Friedman wrote that: “in the world of ideas, to name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue.” In creating and promoting the toxic remnants frame, our intention was for organisations and individuals to take ownership of these problems and to help work towards their resolution. Beyond promoting the conceptual importance of the slow harm narrative, and the need for action even in the face of complex causality or uncertainty, effective work on reducing harm from conflict pollution will require that the capacity and expertise is there to apply the tripartite model in conflict and post-conflict settings.

In practice this will mean ensuring expert interpretation and analysis of the scientific literature. It will mean improving the recording and visibility of pollution incidents during and after conflict. It will mean ensuring that the resources and actors are available for focused environmental assessments in affected communities. And finally it will mean cooperating with the public health community to help develop and implement improved methodologies for post-conflict public health monitoring. Even without limiting the generation of toxic remnants of war, creating the conditions where capacity is available to predict and monitor civilian harm from conflict pollution in these ways would be a significant step forward in reducing the long-term public health legacy of conflict.



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