The environment is a silent casualty of war

Environmental destruction in war causes, among other things, forest loss and congenital diseases, as well as reduces wildlife populations.

Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary General of the UN, has referred to the environment as a silent casualty of war. War destroys and pollutes the environment in many ways: strategically when armies use toxins to put the enemy in danger; directly when industrial targets are bombed or when unexploded explosives leak harmful substances into waterways and the soil; and indirectly when the collapse of social order and infrastructure brought about by warfare results in environmental pollution.

Researcher Freek van der Vet from the Erik Castrén Institute of the University of Helsinki gives an example of strategic environmental destruction in the Vietnam War, where the US military used a herbicide known as Agent Orange in its chemical warfare programme, depriving the local residents and the insurgents of their domiciles and farmlands. The substance contained residues of TCDD, a dioxin, which can enter the body, affect genes and cause severe deformities and physical injuries.

Other examples of direct environmental destruction caused by war include the oil spills in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War in the 1990s and the destruction of industrial sites in Donetsk, Ukraine. Furthermore, unexploded bombs can cause major environmental damage through leakage, which has happened, for example, in the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

At the same time, indirect destruction usually takes place over a longer span of time, as warfare erodes fundamental societal structures. In Syria, the suspension of oil refinery operations has resulted in enormous quantities of harmful substances leaking into the environment. The state of war has also made waste management operations collapse, endangering human health. In terms of international law, indirect effects are very problematic, as direct culpability and responsibility is difficult to demonstrate.

The victimhood of the environment associated with war still downplayed

In recent years, the UN and the International Criminal Court have paid more and more attention to ecological destruction brought about by war, but it is not yet fully understood that the environment can be a victim, causing harm also to humans when it is destroyed or polluted.

“People have difficulty perceiving the environment as a distinct victim of war. The connections between military strategy, ecosystems and human health are not sufficiently understood,” Freek van der Vet notes.

“People tend to consider the environment and nature as property to be enjoyed. Not many are willing to allow that the environment too has its rights.”

So long as the need for environmental protection also during war is not understood, the danger exists that new international legal restrictions do not consider wartime destruction as ecocide, or crimes against the Earth. In this case, neither does environmental legislation consider war a crime against the environment.

Van der Vet heads the Toxic Crimes project, which combines research methodology used in the social sciences and law to investigate how grassroots actors, legal scholars and other experts could join forces to prevent wartime environmental destruction.

Many countries involved in past wars continue to suffer environmental damage

The Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine are one of the most industrialised areas in Europe. In the war, a number of industrial sites suffered damage, which is why coal mines and oil refineries, among others, have been polluting the air and the water supply. Many industrial sites in Donetsk are located in the immediate vicinity of the conflict’s front line.

Van der Vet and his group are investigating how different international and non-governmental organisations as well as other parties have attempted to influence legislation to make it better protect the environment in conflicts. The aim is to add a law on crimes against the earth to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court residing in The Hague. This would enable the prevention of wartime polluting and the use of weapons that are toxic to the environment.

“The goal is to make governments and individuals responsible for these crimes as well,” says Visiting Senior Fellow Emma Hakala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Hakala will begin contributing to the Toxic Crimes project in November.

Currently available methods, satellite data and geographical remote sensing can be used to monitor radiation and other damages from a distance. Still, determining the effects of environmental destruction in the longer term remains difficult.

The victims and effects of landmines are easy to monitor, but surveying the impact of toxic substances takes time.

“How can we assess whether people are getting sick now, in 20 years or never?” van der Vet asks.

The effect of the herbicides used in the Vietnam War on children and American soldiers is a difficult case itself: the manufacturers of the toxins and the United States government have never fully acknowledged the damage caused by the toxins, even though they have established rehabilitation programmes for US veterans affected by the toxins. Even with evidence of crimes at hand, those responsible are not always made to answer for their actions.