Conflict-related damage to the environment has become widespread and causes sustained harm to public health, ecosystems, and peacebuilding.
The International Law Commission (ILC) will finalize its work on new principles for the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict (the PERAC principles) in 2022. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published an updated iteration of its Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict in 2020.
International momentum is gathering for states to implement these frameworks. However, independent mechanisms to monitor the implementation are currently lacking.
The international community and civil society actors need to ensure transparent monitoring mechanisms that enable stakeholders to pressure states into compliance.
Images of burning oil fields and bombarded industrial plants have made it clear that armed conflict always causes environmental damage. In parts of Eastern Ukraine, for instance, hazardous substances have leaked into rivers and groundwater due to the destruction of vital infrastructure and hazardous industries. In Syria, the breakdown of the oil industry has led to severe pollution that threatens the health of nearby inhabitants and may have rendered some areas unfit to live in. Yet environmental damage has usually had a low policy priority in conflict settings, overshadowed by the urgent need to reduce human suffering. The environment and nature are often seen as property or a resource. So the idea of the environment as a subject with rights remains a radical idea.
However, wartime environmental destruction has long-term implications which, if left unattended, will extend far beyond the end of a conflict. Once toxic substances have leaked into groundwater or a forest has been destroyed, the damage may continue to harm the health, livelihoods, and security of people living in the affected area for decades. Environmental destruction in war has resulted in declines in wildlife, deforestation, birth defects, and the introduction of new pollutants and pathogens. A healthy environment is a precondition for sustainable peace. Therefore, it is necessary to come up with ways to assess conflict-induced damages and to remediate them.
In recent years, several international processes have contributed momentum to environmental protection in armed conflict. At the United Nations, the International Law Commission (ILC) has worked on new principles for the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict (the PERAC principles). Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published its Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict in 2020, updated from an earlier version originally prepared at the request of the United Nations General Assembly in 1994. In addition, various NGOs are promoting the inclusion of “crimes against the Earth” or “ecocide” in the Rome Statute, enabling the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate and prosecute individuals for destroying the environment.
This Briefing Paper has three aims. First, we argue that there are two specific complications with addressing environmental damage during conflict and in peacebuilding. Second, we provide an overview of two recent international developments that aim to strengthen the legal protection of the environment during armed conflict: a) the ILC’s efforts to develop new PERAC principles to protect the environment from the consequences of war and conflict, and b) the ICRC updated military guidelines on the protection of the natural environment in armed conflict. Third, we argue that the implementation of these frameworks remains a challenge, and highlight some of the obstacles that might emerge during this phase.