Thoughts on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict

Thoughts on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict

The TRW Project was launched in response to a growing sense that an environmental dimension had been absent from the developing field of humanitarian disarmament. Just as peace and security are key to sustainable development, we believed that environmental concerns should be seen as fundamental considerations for states and civil society working towards improving the protection of civilians during, and after conflict.

In much the same way, the UN formally established the need to consider the environmental impact of conflict in 2001, with November 6th chosen to mark the day:

On 5 November 2001, the UN General Assembly declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict (A/RES/56/4).

Though mankind has always counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, the environment has often remained the unpublicized victim of war. Water wells have been polluted, crops torched, forests cut down, soils poisoned, and animals killed to gain military advantage.

Our project has primarily been a scoping exercise, and we are incredibly grateful to the diverse range of experts who have provided their time and communicated their views, knowledge and experiences as it has progressed. One key realisation has been that the topic of conflict and the environment is vast, and too complex for one simplified grand narrative. However, it has been increasingly apparent that there is considerable scope for linking different fields and expertises in an effort to tackle some of the major gaps in the responses and regulations that currently apply to the environmental harm that results from conflict.

Significant and welcome processes are already underway, such as the project on environmental peacebuilding from the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the University of Tokyo, and McGill University. They have led a five-year global research initiative to analyse experiences in post-conflict peacebuilding and natural resource management, identify lessons, and raise awareness of those lessons among practitioners, researchers, and decision makers.

Nevertheless our research has demonstrated that many opportunities still exist for reducing the environmental harm associated with conflict and military activities, and by doing so increase the protection of civilians. Be it in relation to practical efforts to ensure more effective monitoring or decontamination or through more far-reaching goals such as strengthening International Humanitarian Law. Many of these problems have been identified by others working in the field and yet without a concerted effort, little progress will be made in resolving them. For example, back in 2009 UNEP found, amongst other things, 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: While these two articles prohibit “widespread, long-term and severe” damage to the environment, all three conditions must be proven for a violation to occur. In practice, this triple cumulative standard is nearly impossible to achieve, particularly given the imprecise definitions for the terms “widespread,” “long-term” and “severe.”

There is no permanent international mechanism to monitor legal infringements and address compensation claims for environmental damage sustained during international armed conflicts: The international community is inadequately equipped to monitor legal violations, determine liability and support compensation processes on a systematic basis for environmental damage caused by international armed conflicts. The existence and implementation of such a mechanism could act as a standing deterrent to prevent environmental damage, as well as redress wartime infringements. While an investigative body exists for violations of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, investigations can only be carried out with the consent of countries, are not systematic and do not address violations of other instruments.

The general humanitarian principles of distinction, necessity, and proportionality may not be sufficient to limit damage to the environment: The practical difficulty of establishing the threshold of these principles, which lack internationally agreed standards, makes it easier to justify almost any environmental damage if the military necessity is considered to be sufficiently high. This limits the practical effectiveness of these principles for preventing damage to the environment. The ICRC emphasizes the importance of taking a precautionary approach in the absence of scientific certainty about the likely effects of a particular weapon on the environment.

This list is far from exhaustive and the next phase of the TRW project will examine how collaboration between civil society, experts, states and international organisations could help catalyse efforts to resolve some of these long-standing weaknesses. Examples and lessons from the field of humanitarian disarmament, such as the mine and cluster munition bans, environmental advocacy and the standards and norms applicable during peacetime could prove to be useful templates for change. Something to bear in mind on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, and for the rest of the year for that matter.

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