20 Aug 2019 Story Disasters & conflicts

Why legal principles on war and environment matter

Photo by UN Environment

Oh, the army tried some fancy stuff to bring them to their knees.
Like Agent Orange defoliants, to kill the brush and trees.
We’d hike all day on jungle trails through clouds of poison spray.
And they never told me then, that it would hurt my health today.
(Agent Orange Song—Country Joe McDonald)

Many of us remember shocking images of environmental destruction from conflicts across the globe; from the spraying of the poisonous chemical Agent Orange over the forests in Viet Nam in the 1970s, to the burning oil wells in Kuwait in the 1990s.

Sadly, Viet Nam and Kuwait were not isolated cases. Armed conflicts around the world, and their aftermath, continue to impact the health and well-being of people and the environment through pollution, infrastructure damage and the collapse of governance. The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as well as the burning of oil fields by the Dae’sh terrorist group are poignant recent examples.

Since 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme has conducted over twenty post-conflict assessments, using state-of-the-art science to determine the environmental impacts of war. From Afghanistan to Kosovo* to the Gaza Strip and Sudan—armed conflict causes significant harm to the environment and the communities that depend on natural resources.

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Agent Orange, a dioxin-laced defoliant has been linked to health problems with claims of dioxin poisoning by more than 3 million people in Vietnam. Photo by REUTERS/Kham.

In 2009, UN Environment and the Environmental Law Institute co-authored a seminal report, Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict : An Inventory and Analysis of International Law, which identified gaps and weaknesses in international laws that protect the environment during war and armed conflict.  

Among the report’s recommendations was for the United Nations International Law Commission to “examine the existing international law for protecting the environment during armed conflict and recommend how it can be clarified, codified and expanded”.

Partly as a result of UN Environment’s request to address the topic, the Commission decided to include the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts in its programme of work and appointed Marie G. Jacobsson as its Special Rapporteur in 2013. In 2017, following three reports by Jacobsson on the protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts, Marja Lehto was appointed as Special Rapporteur for environmental protection.

“One of the defining features of the International Law Commission’s work on protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts is that the topic is not limited to situations of armed conflict but covers the whole conflict cycle, clarifying the international law applicable to the protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts. This broad frame has allowed the Commission to take a fresh look at the different environmental concerns and challenges that arise in relation to armed conflicts addressing, for instance, sharing and granting access to environmental information and environmental effects of human displacement. The Commission’s work has greatly benefitted from the increased understanding of the environmental impact of armed conflicts, based, inter alia, on the post-conflict environmental assessments conducted since the 1990s by the UN Environment Programme, the World Bank and others,” says Special Rapporteur Marja Lehto.

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The armed conflicts in the Congo have been partially driven by the struggle for control of the country's vast natural resources, including gold, diamonds and timber, most of which is exploited using hard manual labour. Photo by REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly. 

UN Environment, the Environmental Law Institute and others have supported the Commission throughout its work, and particularly the Special Rapporteurs, by providing publications, legal analyses, and case studies. They also organized a series of workshops and reached out to colleagues in governments, academia, civil society, and other international organizations to expand the information and analysis available to the Special Rapporteur. 

A resolution on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflicts agreed by consensus by all Member States at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in May 2016 encouraged UN Environment to continue supporting the work of the International Law Commission on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts, and was an important signal of the commitment of Member States to tackle the issue.

Then Special Rapporteur Marie Jacobsson noted that this resolution was not only “a positive signal in itself, but it will also establish synergies for the future between the ongoing work of UN Environment, the International Law Commission, as well as the important work undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross on this topic”.

On 8 July 2019 the International Law Commission adopted 28 draft legal principles on first reading to enhance protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts.

"The draft principles are the biggest step forward in legal protection for the environment in conflicts since the 1970s and are long overdue. But they will only be effective in reducing harm to people and ecosystems if they are properly implemented. Governments, international organizations, experts and civil society will all have a role to play in making that happen,” says Doug Weir, Director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory.

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 Protection of the environment has been made difficult in Afghanistan due to years of conflict leading to extensive degradation of landscapes and loss of arable land. Photo by UN Environment/Zahra Khodadadi

The principles touch on various aspect of the conflict lifecycle and, among other things, address the designation of significant environmental and cultural areas as protected zones, the protection of the environment of indigenous people and prevention and mitigation of environmental degradation in areas where persons displaced by armed conflict are located.

“The principles cover both damage to the environment and natural resources. This is important, as initial discussions and framing focused largely on environmental damage and did not adequately address natural resources misuse, including the use of conflict resources to finance armed conflict, which tends to be more widespread. Another important aspect of the principles is that they address both international and non-international conflicts,” says Carl Bruch, Director, International Programs, Environmental Law Institute.

While the principles provide a critical overarching framework and represent a major milestone in ensuring environmental protection in relation to armed conflicts, they constitute the first step. There is still work to be done, for example to address the targeting of water infrastructure such as waterpipes and hydroelectric dams or to integrate environmental considerations in military manuals—a critical means for states to operationalize their obligations. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent guidelines for military manuals and instructions on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict, which are currently being revised, offer an important complementary vehicle in the process to support military manuals.

“Protecting the environment before, during and after armed conflict must rise to the same level of political importance as protecting human rights. A healthy environment is the foundation upon which ​peace and many human rights are realized,” says David Jensen, UN Environment’s Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding.

The challenge ahead is ensuring that the principles are implemented and operationalized. This will require substantial work and partnerships among all stakeholders, including through incorporating the draft principles into military training manuals and supporting outreach to international and domestic courts to support enforcement efforts.

*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of UN Resolution 1244 (1999)

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.

For more information, please contact:

Stefan Smith, Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Coordinator  

David Jensen, Head of Environmental Peacebuilding and Co-Director of MapX