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The Toll of War – International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict

Tomorrow marks the 2021 International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Despite the protection afforded by several important legal instruments, the environment continues to be the silent victim of armed conflicts worldwide. The toll of warfare today reaches far beyond human suffering, displacement and damage to homes and infrastructure. Modern conflicts also cause extensive destruction and degradation of the environment.

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

For this reason, the UN General Assembly — back in the year 2001 — declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Six United Nations agencies and departments (UNEP, UNDP, UN Habitat, PBSO, DPA and DESA), coordinated by the UN Framework Team for Preventive Action, have partnered with the European Union to help countries identify, prevent and transform tensions over natural resource as part of conflict prevention and peacebuilding programmes.

Armed conflict harming the environment

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has conducted over twenty post-conflict assessments since 1999 to determine the environmental impacts of war. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, Sudan and the Gaza Strip, it has found that armed conflict causes significant harm to the environment and the communities that depend on natural resources. Direct and indirect environmental damage, coupled with the collapse of institutions, lead to environmental risks that can threaten people’s health, livelihoods and security, and ultimately undermine post-conflict peacebuilding.
The existing international legal framework contains many provisions that either directly or indirectly protect the environment and govern the use of natural resources during armed conflict. In practice, however, these provisions have not always been effectively implemented or enforced. Where the international community has sought to hold States and individuals responsible for environmental harm caused during armed conflict, results have largely been poor, with one notable exception: holding Iraq accountable for damages caused during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, including for billions of dollars worth of compensation for environmental damage.

Environmental laws regarding armed conflict

Public concern regarding the targeting and use of the environment during wartime first peaked during the Vietnam War. The use of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, and the resulting massive deforestation and chemical contamination it caused, sparked an international outcry leading to the creation of two new international legal instruments. The Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) was adopted in 1976 to prohibit the use of environmental modification techniques as a means of warfare. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, adopted in the following year, included two articles (Article 35 and Article 55) prohibiting warfare that may cause “widespread, long term and severe damage to the natural environment”.
The adequacy of these two instruments, however, was called into question during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The extensive pollution caused by the intentional destruction of over 600 oil wells in Kuwait by the retreating Iraqi army and the subsequent claims for $85 billion in environmental damages led to further calls to strengthen legal protection of the environment during armed conflict.
In 1992, the UN General Assembly held an important debate on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict. While it did not call for a new convention, the resulting resolution urged Member States to take all measures to ensure compliance with existing international law on the protection of the environment during armed conflict. It also recommended that States take steps to incorporate the relevant provisions of international law into their military manuals and ensure that they are effectively disseminated.

Red Cross guidelines

As an outcome of the UN debate, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a set of guidelines in 1994 that summarized the existing applicable international rules for protecting the environment during armed conflict. These guidelines were meant to be reflected in military manuals and national legislation as a means to raise awareness and help limit damage to the environment in times of war. Despite this important step international momentum to address the issue – particularly through a formal binding instrument – slowed by the end of the 20th century.

Damage in the new millennium

Yet armed conflicts have continued to cause significant damage to the environment – directly, indirectly and as a result of a lack of governance and institutional collapse. For instance, dozens of industrial sites were bombed during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, leading to toxic chemical contamination at several hotspots. In another example, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil were released into the Mediterranean Sea following the bombing of the Jiyeh power station during the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2006.
In recent years, concern has also been raised about the role of natural resources – particularly “high-value” resources – in generating revenue for financing armed forces and the acquisition of weapons. Indeed, easily captured and exploitable resources often prolong and alter the dynamics of conflict, transforming war into an economic rather than purely political activity. Since 1990, at least eighteen civil wars have been fuelled by natural resources: diamonds, timber, oil, minerals and cocoa have been exploited in internal conflicts in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Somalia, Sudan, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Given that natural resources such as water, soil, trees, and wildlife are the “wealth of the poor,” their damage and destruction during armed conflict can undermine livelihoods, act as a driver of poverty and forced migration, and even trigger local conflict. As a result, successful peacebuilding – from re-establishing safety, security and basic services to core government functions and the economy – fundamentally depends on the natural resource base and its governance structure.
Natural resources themselves can either unite or divide post-conflict countries depending on how they are managed and restored. It is thus paramount that they be protected from damage, degradation and destruction during armed conflict.