Guest blog: Toxic Remnants of War and reclaiming the protection of civilians

This week will see the conclusion of a series of high level workshops focused on reclaiming the protection of civilians under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Since 2009, and at a series of regional workshops, states, international agencies and civil society have been discussing and identifying practical measures that may be taken by both military and civilian actors to ensure full compliance with existing IHL obligations. The final outcome document of the conference will be in the form of a list of recommendations.

By Doug Weir*

The Toxic Remnants of War Project will be attending the conference and has been considering relevant entry points for our work. The Co-Chair’s report, issued after the most recent regional workshop in the series suggests two areas of note for our work.

“Impact of armed conflicts on civilians: The need to take a comprehensive approach to the protection of civilians was also emphasized, including the importance of taking into account the longer-term impact on civilians linked to the use of certain weapons”.

Concern over long-term environmental contamination from the components of conventional munitions and military wastes is a key element of our TRW approach. Many of these materials are widely recognised as harmful and their use, transport and disposal is controlled by international regulations. The dearth of research into the levels of these contaminants in civilian areas following intense conflict is a matter of concern, particularly where levels of substances may be likely to breach peacetime guidelines. Key to this is the public health burden of mixed exposures to a range of substances, the health outcomes of which are notoriously difficult to predict. The picture is complicated further by variability of harm among different subgroups within a population, for example expectant mothers or children. As recommended by the TRW Project, there is an urgent need for more comprehensive environmental sampling following conflict or in areas of intense military activity.

“Civilian epidemiological research could be improved through the increased characterisation of environmental contamination in conflict zones, which in turn requires increased support for affected states, international organisations and civil society to undertake monitoring and assessment”. [Toxic Harm – recommendation 2]

The results of such efforts would be a useful first step in establishing baseline data for work on civilian and environmental harm.

“Enhancing compliance with IHL, Recording and documenting the effects of hostilities: Documenting how military operations are conducted, including systematic and meticulous casualty recording enhances the understanding of the humanitarian impact of armed conflicts”.

Work by the charity Action on Armed Violence and the Oxford Research Group has served to radically improve documentation of civilian harm in recent years. But as reported by the TRW Project, documenting rates of illness from environmental risk factors is complex even in benign environments. Conditions following conflicts may pose considerable barriers to research and this sets the analysis of harm from contaminants apart from recording blast or shrapnel injuries or deaths. As noted by the Project:

“There is a need for more novel and rigorous environmental epidemiological studies of conflict-related public health problems, in order to establish the extent of their link to military-origin contamination”. [Toxic Harm – recommendation 3]

The Project has argued that the complexity of mapping civilian harm and demonstrating causality to environmental risk factors in post-conflict settings continues to prove a barrier to effective action, because of this the project advocates a precautionary approach to TRW contamination. This is particularly relevant where substances are recognised as harmful to human health or persistent in the environment.

Soon to be published data from the WHO and Iraqi Ministry of Health, which is expected to make a link between areas of Iraq subject to intense fighting and high rates of congenital birth defects, may yet provide some additional impetus for more research on the topic.

In considering reclaiming or improving the protection of civilians under IHL, states should reflect on both the importance of a clean environment to civilian health and wellbeing, and the growing disparity between peacetime health and environmental protection standards and those applied following conflict. From Iraq to South East Asia, civilian harm from conflict has demonstrated that it is not limited to the use or legacy of explosive weapons and that the effects of conflict-origin pollution can span generations.

For a comprehensive overview of the emergent topic of Toxic Remnants of War, see Toxic Harm: humanitarian and environmental harm from military-origin contamination.

*Doug Weir has been Development Worker of the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium since 2005 and ICBUW Coordinator since 2006. He holds a degree in Geology and a post-graduate degree in Journalism. This blog has been written for and was published first at the website of the Toxic Remnants of War project.

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