Since it was established in 2001, the UN’s international day on conflict and the environment on November 6th has been an annual opportunity to raise awareness of the environmental destruction and degradation associated with armed conflicts. And each year since then, the environment and the communities that depend on it have continued to suffer from the impact and legacy of warfare.
The Toxic Remnants of War Network is a civil society coalition of humanitarian disarmament and environmental NGOs that advocates for a greater standard of protection for civilians and the environment before, during and after armed conflicts. This November 6th, the imperative to act on conflict and the environment has rarely been clearer, and we urge governments and the wider international community to pledge to pursue meaningful progress towards this objective.
This year, the environmental consequences of conflict are being beamed nightly to our screens. The battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul has seen apocalyptic images of burning oil and sulphur, as Islamic State have resorted to what amounts to a scorched earth policy as they retreat. Thousands of civilians and hundreds of square kilometres have been affected by the pollution from these fires, and Islamic State has been rightly condemned for these and other atrocities.
But scratch the surface of the conflicts in the region and it is clear that the harms being visited on the environment and population of Mosul are not unique. All sides of the conflict in Syria have also targeted oil facilities and infrastructure, just as armed groups have done in Libya. In Yemen the destruction of critical infrastructure risks the emergence of cholera. In Gaza, years of recurrent conflicts and weak environmental governance threaten wholesale environmental collapse. Jordan and Lebanon’s fragile environments are struggling to cope with the needs of a surging refugee population, while in Syria, the communities that remain meet their needs for fuel for heating and transport by resorting to activities that threaten their own health and that of their local environment.
These are rarely one-off events but instead often come on top of years of environmental deterioration brought about by the international community’s long-running failure to adequately address the environment in the wake of conflicts, or to tackle the environmental factors that can lead to instability.
Last week, the new head of UN Environment Erik Solheim called the situation in northern Iraq “an ongoing ecocide”, arguing that: “It makes living conditions dangerous and miserable, if not impossible. It will push countless people to join the unprecedented global refugee population. That’s why the environment needs to be placed at the centre of crisis response, conflict prevention and conflict resolution.”
Forty years of our failure to act
It has now been four decades since the development of the ENMOD Convention, and four decades since Additional Protocol 1 was agreed. Each was intended to enhance environmental protection in conflict but the evidence from current and recent conflicts suggests that neither has achieved that goal. ENMOD was too focused on futuristic forms of harm; Additional Protocol 1 too vague to make a meaningful impact. There is a pressing need for a new standard, which protects both civilians and their environment.
As Solheim proposes, the environment must indeed be placed at the centre of crisis response, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. But the environment also needs to be protected by governments strengthening and acting upon the norms that can help minimise damage. Systems capable of monitoring damage and the threat it poses to communities and ecosystems must be enhanced and formalised, as must our means of monitoring compliance with current and future law. The environment must also be restored in the wake of conflicts, the victims of damage identified and assisted, and the environment properly mainstreamed in humanitarian response, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.
But there are grounds for optimism. In May, governments agreed a hugely significant resolution on conflict and the environment, the latest in a series of developments that has seen conflict and the environment re-emerge onto the global political agenda. This week, governments in New York have been debating new legal norms intended to protect the environment following conflicts. Elsewhere the linkages between human rights, exposure to hazardous war remnants and environmental protection in relation to conflict are being explored.
Delivering what is urgently needed to enhance the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts is a huge undertaking, and one that will require collaboration between governments, international organisations, experts and civil society. But environmental protection, sustainable development and the health and wellbeing of civilians demand that we act to deliver what is so clearly absent. We have seen the results of forty years of failure on conflict and the environment, now we must see what can be achieved with a few years of progress.