Toxic Crimes: Legal Advocacy, Human Rights and the Destruction of the Environment during Conflict

Duration: April 2019 - March 2022
Funder: Kone Foundation (Research Group) & Academy of Finland

War often destroys the environment – either when armies poison foliage as a strategy or when toxins leak from undetonated explosives. One well-known example, is the US army’s use of “Agent Orange”, an herbicide, on trees and bushes in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Agent Orange destroyed large patches of forests and crops, depriving Vietcong guerillas from food and concealment. In the following decades, people living in the affected areas are still coping with illnesses. More recent examples include the destruction of industrial sites in the conflict in the Donbass area in Ukraine that lead to the flooding of mines and pollution of water supplies. While the United Nations and International Criminal Court have grown more attentive to the consequences of wartime environmental destruction, courts seldom hold states and individuals accountable for the damage done to human health and ecosystems.

While climate change justice, climate litigation, and environmental human rights are growing fields, we know less of how rights advocates – lawyers, experts, and activists – promote the idea that the environment can be a victim and subject separate from the harm done to people. Without a clear understanding of how these rights advocates work, we risk undervaluing two issues: first, their impact on a new branch of international legal restrictions under “crimes against the earth.” Second, we risk undervaluing how they employ a range of strategies: monitoring polluted areas, representing victims at human rights courts, and making new connections between overlapping fields of international law.

Drawing on interviews and multi-sited fieldwork, the “Toxic Crimes” project examines how legal experts and lawyers (a) monitor and limit the spread of pollution in areas of wartime environmental destruction, (b) help victims in polluted conflict zones by aiding them in their claims at regional human rights courts, and (c) seek to expand the rights of the environment by holding individuals accountable.

Project leader: Freek van der Vet, PhD (Sociology, Univeristy of Helsinki) freek.vandervet@helsinki.fi

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Postdoctoral Researcher: Emma Hakala, PhD (Political History, University of Helsinki) emma.hakala@fiia.fi

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