An environmental movement for times of war, too
Oil wells set ablaze in Iraq. Forests pillaged in Colombia. Wildlife populations decimated across the Sahara-Sahel. Around the world, armed conflicts continue to cause significant damage to the environment. In turn, this damage often has immense humanitarian implications, threatening human health, livelihoods and economies.
In Yemen, the destruction of urban water and sanitation systems contributed to a massive cholera outbreak, killing over 2,500 among the 1.2 million cases reported since 2016.
This spring, devastating fires — attributed to a mix of sources including the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — ripped through wheat and barley crops in Iraq and Syria, killing farmers, destroying a rare bumper crop and endangering the livelihoods and food security of millions.
Despite increasing recognition of the importance of environmental protection during armed conflict, the existing patchwork of legal instruments that set out provisions for states to comply with falls short. What provisions exist are widely considered inadequate, compliance is not great and standards are not particularly well defined, explained Doug Weir, research and policy director of the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory.
These shortcomings have rekindled interest within the scientific community in the creation of a “Fifth Geneva Convention” to uphold environmental protection during armed conflicts. In an open letter to Nature in July, 24 scientists from the United Kingdom, Africa, Europe and the United States called on governments to “finally deliver a Fifth Geneva Convention,” which “would provide a multilateral treaty that includes legal instruments for site-based protection of crucial natural resources.” In theory, it would build on the existing law of armed conflict by further developing rules to minimize environmental damage in times of war. They also called for governments and companies to work together to regulate arms transfer, and for the military industry to be held to greater account for the impact of its activities.
Established in the wake of World War II, the four Geneva Conventions and their three Additional Protocols provide the core of the law of armed conflict, also called international humanitarian law. Together, this series of treaties regulates how war is waged to try to limit its consequences and sets out protections for wounded and sick soldiers at land and sea, prisoners of war and civilians in international and non-international conflicts, including those in occupied areas.
Yet while the Geneva Conventions prohibit “widespread, long-term and severe” damage to the environment, in many cases these rules of war have not provided adequate protection for the environment, hence recent calls to enhance legal protection.
Peacetime international and national environmental treaties, accords and legislation, such as the Ramsar Convention, the Paris Agreement and proposed Green New Deal, have advanced more rapidly than legal instruments designed specifically to protect the environment in times of war. However, the latter are starting to receive an increasing amount of attention — despite the many additional challenges they face when it comes to implementation.
Efforts to strengthen legal protection of the environment during armed conflict stretch back to the Vietnam War. International concern over the widespread deforestation and chemical contamination from the United States military’s use of Agent Orange was reflected in the development of the 1976 Environmental Modification Convention and two articles (35 and 55) in Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions the following year.
In the aftermath of the environmental devastation of the 1991 Gulf War, the question was raised of whether a fifth Geneva Convention should be established to protect the environment in times of armed conflict. Ultimately, interest waned and the question went unanswered.