Time to do more to prevent and restore wartime environmental damage

Today is the UN’s annual conflict and environment day, or rather the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. This year has seen the environmental effects of warfare in heavily industrialised areas become apparent during the conflict in Ukraine. We have also seen the first indications of the environmental damage and its derived humanitarian consequences of the ongoing conflict in Syria.

From Iraq, to Yemen and Gaza, the humanitarian impact of wartime environmental damage is becoming ever more apparent. Meanwhile, during the last 60 years, the UN Environment Programme has estimated that 40% of internal armed conflicts have been driven by access to and control over natural resources. Yet in spite of the work of the UN Environment Programme and others, the role of the environment as a victim of conflict, and as a driver of instability, remains under-addressed by the international community. Critically, the impact on the lives and livelihoods of civilians from wartime environmental damage remains poorly documented, leaving affected communities unsupported.

We understand what it takes protect and restore the environment. Four five decades, laws designed to protecting the environment and human health have been developed and implemented in peacetime. But in the same period, next to nothing has been done to strengthen the legal protection provided for the environment and its civilian inhabitants during and after armed conflicts. This is a huge disparity, and one that daily threatens communities and ecosystems in conflict zones around the world.

The Toxic Remnants of War Network believes that it’s time to act on strengthening protection for the environment, both in law and practice. And we are not alone on this. The UN Environment Programme has documented the legal gaps and opportunities. The International Committee of the Red Cross has helped to begin to define the humanitarian imperative for greater protection. And a number of governments engaging on a study by the International Law Commission on conflict and the environment have shown to be in favour of strengthened protection.

But it’s not just about law and politics, far more can be done to record the environmental impact of armed conflicts, to communicate that information and to ensure that these forms of long-lasting damage can no longer be ignored. Work to highlight and mainstream the wealth of practical experience and best practice on post-conflict environmental interventions must also be prioritised. Only by communicating harm and mainstreaming environmental protection will it be possible to challenge the current orthodoxy of the environment as a “silent victim” of armed conflict.

Moving forward

Today the Toxic Remnants of War Project has published a new report on how a more robust system of post-conflict environmental and humanitarian assistance could be structured. It also examines how such a system could help to strengthen international norms against the most environmentally destructive military behaviours. These should be important objectives for all governments but the report is just the beginning of a conversation, and a contribution to the developing debate over how best to minimise harm to the environment and the civilian population who depend on it.

Our Network was established by NGOs active in the fields of the environment, humanitarian disarmament and the protection of civilians – reflecting the fact that protection for the environment cannot be viewed as distinct from protecting the lives and livelihoods of those caught up in conflicts. Achieving greater protection for the environment from the impact and legacy of conflicts will be a huge challenge, and we invite governments, international organisations, civil society and individuals to work with us to help achieve it.

To find out more about our Network, and about how you can get involved, visit http://www.trwn.org/get-involved/             

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