Strengthening the protection for the environment during conflict

[Guest blog by: Doug Weir, Project Manager at Toxic Remnants of War  

At the end of 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published the results of a four year review into strengthening legal protection for the victims of armed conflicts. One of the four thematic areas under review was strengthening the protection of the environment in armed conflict.

Clearly a healthy environment is crucial for civilian health. This anthropocentric justification for improving the protection of the environment has been a constant refrain since the latter part of the last century but equally valid arguments exist for protecting the environment in its own right. In this century, it is clear that conflict’s potential for damaging the environment – and by extension civilian health – has never been greater; be it the use of hazardous materials in munitions, the dumping of military wastes or the deliberate targeting of industrial facilities.

As a campaigner it therefore came as a surprise to discover that the world’s finest legal minds have long struggled to even define the concept of the environment – let alone protect it. Similarly, existing International Humanitarian Law (IHL) provisions for the protection of the environment – largely developed in response to the use of the defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War – are drafted in such a way as to only restrict the most extreme ‘long-term, severe and widespread’ damage.

The flowering of international environmental law and development of domestic environmental regulations over the last four decades have only served to highlight the glacial pace of change when it comes to the environment and conflict. Thankfully it’s now becoming abundantly clear that there is considerable potential for the merging of different areas of law – domestic norms, IHL, international environmental law and human rights law. Indeed this potential is currently only constrained by the positions of states. With the lawyers ready to set to work, states are worrying about the financial burden of environmental remediation, about the imposition of yet more law and about the staggering breadth of environmental protection during conflict.

Are these problems insurmountable? On obligations for remediation and technical assistance, there are clear precedents to be found in the mine and cluster munition ban treaties and, perhaps more importantly, under domestic environmental law – where the Polluter Pays Principle has long been the norm. Is it too broad an issue to cope with? Doubtful – it cannot be beyond the wit of humanity to break down the issue into manageable chunks. This is an area which, we hope, will be addressed in part by the Toxic Remnants of War Project.

The remaining question is one of political will, the ICRC reported that some states were supportive of the idea of strengthening environmental protection during conflict – it remains to be seen whether they, international experts and civil society can energise the debate and make IHL’s provisions for the protection of the environment fit for purpose.

For more information on the Toxic Remnants of War Project click here

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