Towards an integrated approach to the material legacies of war: landmines, explosive remnants of war and environmental contamination.

Towards an integrated approach to the material legacies of war: landmines, explosive remnants of war and environmental contamination.

In this collaboration, Dr Matthew Bolton (Pace University, NY) and Doug Weir examine how the politics of war, the environment and humanitarianism since the 1970s have influenced state and civil society responses to the remnants of war. In doing so it considers how mines and ERW became decoupled from the environment and whether new opportunities are now emerging for a more integrated approach to reducing the risks the legacies of war pose to civilians and environment alike.


The world is infused with all kinds of risks – to our security, to our livelihoods, to our environment – that are interwoven in complex ways. But how does one know which specific problems to solve first? Or which risks deserve more attention or money? There is a common sense view – often found in government and non-profit bureaucracies – that to answer these questions one does an objective needs assessment and then allocates strategic resources rationally to projects designed by technical experts.

But of course, risks are rarely handled this way. A group of neighbours may refuse to allow the city to build a waste water plant in their suburb. Politicians often budget money to projects that will get them the most votes. Pollution affecting a marginalised community might get less attention than the nature reserve used by middle-class hikers. Social scientists call this the political construction of risk – the cultural, economic, social and political process in which a risk is named, understood, isolated from the diffuse ‘ecosystem’ of other problems and addressed. Whether a risk is dealt with and how, depends on how it is framed by political actors – whether the media, politicians, citizens or civil society.

In this article we show how the threat to civilians by landmines and other explosive remnants of war – once seen as one dimension of the humanitarian and environmental impact of conflict – became isolated from environmentalism in the 1980s through early 2000s. However, as diplomatic attention to mines (and funding) has declined, mine action agencies are increasingly expanding the scope of their work into related operational and policy areas, one of which is the environment. The environment has a growing salience in public policy debates, perhaps due to increased attention on climate change. But the recent reinsertion of mines into these broader considerations has often occurred in a depoliticised, technocratic context, rather than re-enlivening a critique of the wider costs of militarism.

Environmental devastation and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) in Indochina

The devastation of the Vietnam War opened many eyes to the humanitarian and environmental impacts of armed conflict that persisted beyond any given battle. The widespread use of toxic defoliants, cluster munitions, landmines, booby traps and incendiary weapons like napalm left swaths of Indochina hazardous to life – whether human, animal or vegetation. Meanwhile, the developing environmental movement in North America and Europe was rooted in the counter-cultural belief that degradation was linked to Cold War militarisation. Rachel Carson – author of the 1962 cri de coeur Silent Spring – is now remembered as catalysing the environmental movement but she also critiqued the militarisation of science. Greenpeace was established in 1971 to protest both the environmental and human effects of nuclear weapons tests. As a result, concerns expressed by activists, humanitarians and diplomats did not necessarily isolate the specific risks of landmines and ERW from other humanitarian costs of war in Indochina. Rather, they rooted them in a broader political critique of Cold War militarism.

For example, the civil society “International War Crimes Tribunals” organised in 1966 and 1967 by the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre heard evidence both on the “defoliation of Vietnamese jungles” as well as the civilian harm caused by aerial bombardment. Similarly, the landmark 1972 Cornell University study The Air War in Indochina, which documented the immediate and long-term human costs of the bombing, included an entire appendix on the “ecological damage” and condemned the “questionable legality” of weaponised herbicides. On the ground, Quaker and Mennonite humanitarian agencies working in North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were among the first to raise the alarm about the devastation caused by American bombing of Indochina. They called attention to the indiscriminate long-term effects of unexploded cluster munitions, aerially dropped landmines, napalm and Agent Orange. In addition to the human impact, their work in the agricultural sector enabled them to see the damage to the environment and they engaged in some limited efforts to clear and mitigate the impact of mines and ERW. They linked these concerns to a broader critique of war – rather than an apolitical discussion of risks and policy measures – and established connections with the anti-war movement in the US protesting the companies making the military’s weapons and chemicals.

Emerging policy responses in the 1970s

Public concern about the humanitarian impact of modern anti-personnel weapons in Indochina and elsewhere prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and several middle power states – particularly Sweden – to call for tighter global laws of war. At the 1974 conference in Lucerne on “Weapons that May Cause Unnecessary Suffering or Have Indiscriminate Effects”, diplomats discussed both the humanitarian impact of “Delayed Action and Treacherous Weapons” – i.e. mines and booby traps – as well as a proposed “prohibition against doing irreparable damage to the environment” in war.

Indeed, through much of the 1970s, there was far less distinction between the environmental and explosive risks from the material remnants of war than exists today. This frame, stemming partly from the response to the Vietnam War and partly from the comparatively low profile of specialised ERW clearance operators and agencies, meant it was the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that was tasked by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) with studying “the problem of the material remnants of wars, particularly mines, and their effects on the environment”. The study, and the work that followed, were the first international attempt to scope the problem of ERW and offer solutions.

The UNGA had first begun considering the remnants of wars in 1975, with UNEP’s initial scoping report and governmental consultation published in 1977. The environmental impacts highlighted were broad, covering loss of access to fishing, mineral or agricultural resources, damage to land through cratering or the removal of ERW, and the effects of the chemical constituents of munitions on human health and the ecosystem as a whole. Its recommendations are notable for identifying a number of issues that persist to the present day, such as the rapid transfer of targeting data, self-destruct mechanisms and the provision of technical and financial assistance to affected states.


UNEP’s 1977 report on the material remnants of wars.

In 1976, UNEP’s governing council requested UNEP’s Executive Director to canvass states on “the feasibility and desirability of convening an intergovernmental meeting on the environmental problems of the material remnants of wars”. Of those that responded, 15 responded favourably, with 17 opposed. As a result the meeting did not take place but the report had by that time been submitted to the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts and discussed within the context of Articles 35 and 55 of the 1977 Geneva Convention’s Additional Protocols, where it was championed by Sweden. The Geneva conference and the negotiations within the Conference on Disarmament on the 1977 Environmental Modification (ENMOD) convention represented the other two avenues whereby concerns over the environmental impact and legacy of conflict were being explored. Meanwhile, the process begun at the Lucerne conference resulted in the negotiation of the 1980 Convention on Certain Convention Weapons (CCW), which established humanitarian restrictions on “excessively injurious” and “indiscriminate” weapons, including landmines and incendiary weapons.

However, attempts to achieve a comprehensive policy framework for dealing with the environmental and explosive legacies of conflict were stymied by the Cold War context, in which states were reluctant to restrict their national security structures. The CCW and ENMOD imposed few genuine constraints on states, either in terms of restricting their behaviour in war or paying for the damage done. There was minimal international effort to clear up and remediate the environmental damage and explosive contamination of the wars in Indochina. The CCW only banned the “indiscriminate” use of mines and left cluster munitions unregulated. Similarly, few states have interpreted ENMOD as a blanket ban on weaponised herbicides.

The proxy wars provoke humanitarian interest in landmines

Interest in the material remnants of wars persisted through a series of UNGA resolutions until 1985, with UNEP continuing to promote an intergovernmental meeting but with little success, the language of the resolutions passed during the period suggests a growing frustration at the lack of progress. In 1983, a group of high level experts, including representatives from UNEP and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, had met in Geneva to discuss the increasing number of national reports on the problem of “explosive remnants of conventional wars” – particularly mines. In doing so they sought to collate state submissions and research from other sources into a more substantive study on remnants. As with the earlier study, ERW and their many and diverse hazards, were framed primarily as an environmental and economic problem. Predictably, there continued to be little consensus from states on the issue, with discord over responsibility and liability for compensation, the role of the UN generally and UNEP in particular, and the persistent question of an intergovernmental conference.

The new report discussed a number of national examples from conflicts – Panama, Lebanon, Suez, the Pacific and North African campaigns of WWII, as well as peacetime incidents relating to contamination on ranges. The scope of ERW was similar to that recognised today but included naval mines and sea dumped munitions – sea dumping was eventually banned by the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention but the risks from sea-dumped munitions remain under addressed. The impacts were also reviewed, environmental first, followed by economic and finally loss of life or property. The environmental impacts related to soil damage, the loss of flora and fauna and pollution with toxic munition constituents such as TNT and RDX. The report concluded with a strident call for action, for the role of the UN as a facilitator of clearance to be properly defined and for the technical aspects of clearance itself to be improved.

In spite of the work of UNEP and the expert group, and the persistent UNGA resolutions, the holistic remnants of war framing they promoted failed to establish sufficient traction to achieve either an international conference or a solution to the problem. The period that followed would see the environment effectively decoupled from what would become mine action.

Beyond the chamber of the UNGA, the specific context of the proxy wars of the 1980s was leading to a growing awareness of the humanitarian impact of landmines. Increased Cold War tensions prompted the Reagan Administration to sponsor “non-communist” insurgencies against Soviet-backed governments in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola and Afghanistan. In each of these conflicts, US-backed rebels based their operations in the safe haven “friendly” neighbouring countries (Honduras, Thailand, South Africa, Zaire and Pakistan). In response, the Socialist/Communist governments followed Soviet mine warfare doctrine – developed in WWII – which called for the massive mining of the border areas. This, and retaliatory mining by insurgents, caused unprecedented civilian casualties by landmines.

Aid workers operating in these areas formed new NGOs – Handicap International, Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the HALO Trust – in response to this humanitarian crisis that have since become major players in the mine action sector. Similarly, the ICRC came under pressure from its medical personnel in its field hospitals who were treating numerous landmine injuries. The news media – increasingly sensitive to NGOs concerns following the Ethiopian famine – began to run stories on landmine victims and the aid workers who cared for them. And perhaps because it was the Socialist/Communist governments that were laying the most mines, the US government began to call attention to the humanitarian impact.

In 1989, the US contracted a commercial company to organise demining in Afghanistan and established the USAID Patrick Leahy War Victims Fund to support civilian survivors of landmines and other weapons. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was tasked with the relief and reconstruction effort, Operation Salam. Anticipating a large-scale return of refugees to landmine-affected areas, OCHA established the first UN humanitarian demining programme, eventually taking over the US-funded project and coordinating the work of the HALO Trust. However, this programme focused only on clearing mines and other explosive remnants of war – not on a broader effort to remediate the devastating environmental impact of the Soviet occupation.

The post-Cold War expansion of mine action

Mine action benefited from the sharp increase of UN and humanitarian involvement in conflicted and post-conflict situations following the end of the Cold War, particularly in Cambodia, northern Iraq, Mozambique, Angola and the former Yugoslavia. NGOs and the ICRC were able to marshal incontrovertible evidence that the casualties of landmines were overwhelmingly civilian. The tremendous media interest and public support for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines resulted in the 1997 Ottawa Convention that banned antipersonnel mines and established a policy framework that has since funnelled billions of dollars to victim assistance, risk education and clearance.

In isolating landmines from their broader context of environmental and explosive hazards, campaigners and aid workers were able to simultaneously depoliticise the perception of landmines – framing them as a humanitarian concern – while generating political support to prohibit them. Indicative was the role of Princess Diana, whose insistence that her support for the Campaign was apolitical put considerable political pressure on the British government to back a ban. But the momentum on landmines did not result in much increased attention to the broader environmental legacies of war. Within the UN, it was the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and agencies like UNICEF and UNDP that gained control of coordinating assistance to the mine action sector. UNEP played little to no role in 1990s mine action, despite its earlier work. To this day, it is not included in the UN’s inter-agency coordination group on mine action.

Nevertheless, the 1990s had begun and ended with conflicts in which environmental damage was highly visible: the oil fires of the 1991 Gulf War and the targeting of industrial facilities and use of depleted uranium in NATO’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Concerned over the impact of NATO’s air campaign, in 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan directed UNEP to conduct an assessment of the environmental damage wrought in Kosovo and Serbia and determine its humanitarian impact. To do so, UNEP and United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) established the Joint UNEP/UN-HABITAT Balkans Task Force. The work of the task force would ultimately lead to the creation of UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch and its subsequent development and refinement of post-conflict environmental assessments.

This reimagining of UNEP’s role represented a significant departure from that which it had played during the 1970s. While it would return to areas that would have come under the early frame of ‘material remnants’ from time to time, for example on depleted uranium or abandoned ordnance, over the years it has moved towards the consideration of a far broader view of conflict-induced environmental harm, for example the question of natural resource management and its role in peacebuilding.

A rapprochement between environmental and mine action?

The legacy of the 1980s decoupling of mine action from the environment is visible today. Although mine action is still defined as “activities which aim to reduce the social, economic and environmental impact of mines and ERW”, during the last decade the interpretation of “the environment” has narrowed to relate primarily to the environmental impact of clearance operations. These may include the generation of wastes, soil degradation from vegetation removal or mechanical demining and soil and air pollution from the detonation of mines and ERW. Overall there is a sense that the success of the urgent humanitarian framing that developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s has resulted in a de-prioritisation of environmental considerations.

There are of course exceptions, and these could perhaps provide a vision for the reintegration of the environment in mine action, based on an acceptance that environmental considerations should not be seen as distinct from humanitarian concerns.

On 4th March 2012, five major explosions occurred at the Regiment Blindé munitions depot near the centre of Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Approximately 250 people were killed, more than 3,000 injured and an estimated 20,000 people were displaced. Several tons of explosive agents, rifle and artillery ammunition and possibly rocket fuel were reportedly detonated in the blast.


Munitions amid debris after the 2012 Brazzaville blast, credit: UNDAC.

Having received a call for assistance, OCHA coordinated the deployment of an UN Disaster and Coordination Team to undertake a rapid environmental emergency assessment and assist with the coordination of international assistance. MAG and an Italian explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team were deployed to deal with the unexploded ordnance (UXO) present, while a team of experts assessed the safety of nearby industrial facilities and undertook sampling for explosive agents, their degradation products and stabilisers, and heavy metals, including lead and mercury.

As sampling was limited by the presence of UXO, short and medium term recommendations were proposed for further monitoring, these highlighted the ongoing risks to human health from environmental contamination from munitions residues at the site.

The prioritisation of acute risks from UXOs is of course understandable but raises the question of whether current approaches that prioritise civilian protection should pay more attention to the medium and long term risks from the environmental contaminants connected with conflict and military activities. For guidance it is perhaps worth comparing peacetime approaches to similar pollution incidents from military activities, these occur within a relatively clear framework of environmental regulation, regulations informed by the need to protect human and ecosystem health.

The approach taken on the continental US is perhaps instructive, where the US Environmental Protection Agency is involved in characterising the risks and overseeing remedial work on former military sites, where UXO and munitions constituents may be present. Because environmental considerations have been mainstreamed by the national regulatory framework, US commercial deminers have considerable experience in undertaking clearance or sustainment operations with an environmental focus. This could perhaps provide a resource of knowledge and skills that could be made available for non-commercial operators engaged in work in settings where clear environmental regulatory oversight is not in place.

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) has an ongoing programme on mine action and the environment. To date this has focused primarily on the environmental impact of operations and the requirement that operators do not exacerbate the vulnerability of communities. However the question is whether the community as a whole could, and should, go further. Is it possible to seek to reintegrate the environment into mine action in a more meaningful way than exists at present?

Looking forward

Conflict and many of its associated activities are intrinsically damaging to the environment. Attacks on industry or populated areas, the operations of military installations and disposal or abandonment of materiel may all generate pollutants that pose risks to civilian health. At the same time, governmental capacity for environmental assessment, where it exists, may be hugely diminished by the conditions associated with the conflict. As a result, environmental pollution that has consequences for civilian health and livelihoods may go unrecorded and unreported. Formal post-conflict environmental assessments may be delayed by the security situation or the political will of donors and information critical for public health protection may be missed as a result.

As a first-responder during and after conflict, the mine action community is uniquely placed to record data on environmental contaminants and damage. This would expand the scope of environmental assessment from the impact of clearance activities, to the impact of the conflict itself in areas of operations. Increasing the visibility of such harm is critical for developing a more coherent understanding of the humanitarian consequences of conflict. Improving the recording and availability of data on environmental risks could also help empower affected communities, helping improve access to effective remedies, facilitate participation in environmental decision-making and the implementation of harm reduction measures. Data gathered could also help inform and direct later and more comprehensive post-conflict environment assessments, drawing attention to hazards and providing important data on changes in environmental quality over time.

The need for a more holistic approach to protecting civilians, and deminers, from the toxic remnants of war has already been recognised by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA). In doing so, NPA has made the links between precautionary approaches towards civilian and environmental health over depleted uranium and pollution from unplanned explosions at ammunition storage sites.

Is the integration of environmental assessment into operations feasible? The work of commercial entities and defence research agencies operating on the sustainment and remediation of domestic ranges and facilities suggests that assessment methodologies for military substances of interest exist and may be readily transferable. Methodologies for the assessment of civil use materials are already well established by national environmental authorities. The primary barriers are likely to be expertise and the costs associated with analysis and equipment. However, neither of these is insurmountable. Beyond assessment and recording, further opportunities may also be available in the field of environmental monitoring, remediation and capacity building with national authorities.

But it is not enough simply to seek a technocratic “coordination” of the environmental remediation and mine action sectors. As the academic literature on social construction of risks shows us, the particular framing of landmines as somehow separate from the environmental impact of war, is the result of a contingent political process. There is no inherent reason why we cannot revive the earlier, more holistic, understanding common during the early 1970s, which perceived the connections between them. The humanitarian impact of landmines and the environmental damage caused by toxic remnants of war are ultimately political problems that derive from large-scale organised violence. They are the result of governments and armed groups that favour short-term military interests over the interests of civilians and the earth itself. To deal with this requires us to re-consider the diplomatic, military and political systems that structure the laws of war and push for a policy framework that holds armed actors responsible for their humanitarian and environmental impact.

Matthew Bolton’s participation in this project is funded by a Faculty Scholarship from the Pace Academy for Applied Environment Studies. Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project.


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