The environment is a silent victim of war (United Nations Secretary-General 2014).

Wartime environmental destruction has been linked to deforestation, the introduction of new pollutants, illnesses, birth-defects, and wildlife decline. War destroys or pollutes the environment in two ways: either directly, when armies use toxins to poison foliage as a warfare strategy, or indirectly, when bombed industrial sites or undetonated explosives leak toxins, polluting water supplies and soil.

A well-known example of direct destruction is the US army’s use of the herbicide “Agent Orange” in its chemical warfare program “Operation Ranch Hand” during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange destroyed large patches of forests and crops, depriving Vietcong guerillas from food and concealment. The herbicide also contains traces of the dioxin TCDD, which can enter the body and affect gene expression in humans. Examples of indirect environmental destruction during war include the Persian Gulf oil spills during the 1990s Gulf War, the effects of NATO bombings in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and the destruction of industrial sites in the conflict in the Donbas region in Ukraine, which flooded mines and polluted water supplies.

States and people have always damaged the environment during war but proving the link between wartime strategies and damage to ecosystems and human health, however, is often difficult. While the United Nations and International Criminal Court have grown more attentive over recent years to the consequences of wartime environmental destruction, states and individuals accountable are seldom held accountable for the damage done to human health and ecosystems.


Climate change justice, climate litigation, and environmental human rights are growing fields, but 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 to protect the environment during conflict, we risk undervaluing two issues: first, their impact on a new branch of international legal restrictions under “crimes against the earth” and the codification of international law surrounding the environment and conflict. 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.

Our project combines social scientific and legal approaches to examine how activists, lawyers, and other experts work against environmental destruction as a consequence of war and conflict. In the first part of the project, we examine how a network of international experts and organizations develops an international legal framework on wartime environmental destruction. In the second part of the project, we examine single country case studies on wartime environmental destruction. Drawing on interviews and qualitative fieldwork, the Toxic Crimes Project aims to reveal (1) how experts were involved in the development of this legal framework, (2) how they try to promote the idea of the environment as a victim of war, (3) how they have created new expertise and strategies, and (4) how they have worked "on the ground" to limit the damage to health and ecosystems in specific conflict zones.

Case 1: Environ­mental destruction in East­ern Ukraine

The Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine is one of Europe’s most heavily industrialized areas. Before the ongoing conflict broke out, the region already coped with heavy pollution from its industry and coal sector. Some of these heavy industry sites have been unstable or fraught with safety issues. The ongoing conflict in the Ukraine that started in 2014 has damaged some of these sites, for instance the Zasyadko coal mine and the Lysychyansk oil refinery, polluting the air and water supplies as a result. Many of these industrial sites in the Donbass region are located in the immediate vicinity of the front line of the conflict.

Case 2: In­ter­na­tional cam­paign on pro­tec­tion of the en­vir­on­ment dur­ing war­time

Here we examine how lawyers have worked internationally to set new legal restrictions and create a new category of “crimes against the earth” in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and improve legal mechanisms to restrict the spread of war time pollution or use of weaponry that is toxic to the environment. This case aims to map out how they have strengthened existing legal mechanisms, and codified international law at the International Law Commission, to hold states and individuals accountable for environmental destruction.

Case 3: New meth­ods and digital mon­it­or­ing of environ­mental destruction

The key to the effective monitoring, and by extension, effective campaigning of the destruction of the environment during times of conflict is relevant data collection methodologies, and importantly, who is able to employ such methodologies. Thus, the project also investigates how technological advancements in digital information gathering of the past decade has enabled stakeholders across the spectrum to provide innovative ancillary support to international oragnisations, thereby furthering the development of the legal framework.