How would conflict look if it were treated as a peacetime industrial accident? What forms of assistance would be made available to assist affected communities, and which regulations and obligations would apply for both the polluter and the government? What balance would be struck between safeguarding public and environmental health and the needs of industry?
International Humanitarian Law provisions for the protection of the environment during conflict have remained largely static since the late 1970s, even as peacetime regulatory frameworks, such as the EU’s wide-ranging REACH system on chemicals in consumer products, have proliferated. And although widespread, intentional attacks on the environment have mainly been consigned to history, environmental degradation remains a hallmark of conflict.
The consensus view of legal specialists, and the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN Environment Programme, is that there is significant room for improvement in how the environment is protected, monitored and restored, during and after conflict.
It would be naïve to underestimate the scale of the challenge. Conflict and the environment encompasses everything from the role of resource scarcity in triggering conflicts, to environmental degradation from displaced populations; from the deliberate targeting or looting of industrial facilities, to the civilian health and environmental legacy of substances released or abandoned during military activities. While the scope of the topic appears overwhelming, its very diversity provides opportunities: in this respect it is not simply an environmental issue; instead it provides entry points on security, on development, on gender, on governance and peace-building and critically, on the protection of civilians.
The protection of civilians during and after conflict is intrinsically linked to safeguarding and restoring environmental quality. Civilian areas subject to intense fighting can face localised, but severe, environmental pollution, with contamination with pulverised building materials, industrial materials, sewage and munitions residues all commonplace. The capacity of affected states to assess and monitor these pollutants is typically low, while input and assistance from the international community may be limited, or provided on an ad hoc basis with little follow-up.
Of particular relevance to the First Committee is our research on munitions residues. This has shown that data on the levels and risks posed by these contaminants in conflict or post-conflict settings are almost wholly absent. In some respects this was surprising, as many of these substances – which together could be viewed as toxic remnants of war – are recognised as hazardous and regulated in peace time. What little data there are available typically come from firing ranges, where contaminant levels in many countries have been regularly shown to exceed national standards for environmental protection.
Heavy metals, explosives, propellants and obscurants have all been identified as problematic and, while some States have begun taking steps to reduce the use of the most harmful materials, more attention must be focused on their post-conflict health and environmental legacy. Until this happens, an EU citizen purchasing furniture will continue to enjoy greater protection from toxics than civilians caught up in conflict.
The Toxic Remnants of War Project invites States and NGOs interested in exploring initiatives on conflict and the environment to raise the topic during the UN First Committee, for more information please visit our research hub www.toxicremnantsofwar.info or follow @detoxconflict.