Towards better environmental protection in armed conflicts

Environmental dimensions of armed conflicts

Years of armed conflict have devastated Yemen’s environment, contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Attacks on hydraulic infrastructure depriving thousands of people of access to safe drinking water, exacerbating a cholera epidemic that has caused around 4000 dead since April 2017. The fighting has also damaged Yemen’s agricultural infrastructure, contributing to the food insecurity of about 16.2 million people.

The environmental impacts of the conflict in Yemen could worsen. The Safer tanker has been moored off an oil terminal in the Red Sea for more than five years, containing more than one million barrels of crude oil. The UN has warned that the oil tanker Safer is at risk leak, explosion or fire due to lack of maintenance, although the Huthi armed group (which controls the area) has access delayed several times to a United Nations technical assessment team.

The use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and the burning of oil fields during the First Gulf War are two of the most appalling examples of environmental devastation during conflict. More recently, the decade of unrest and conflict in Syria weighed heavily on the environment. In Iraq, the armed group “Islamic State” has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity by deliberately targeting the Iraqi rural environment, including the irrigation wells of poor smallholder farmers. In eastern Ukraine, a highly industrialized region, the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed armed groups compromised nearly 250 industrial sites, including metallurgical and chemical plants which pose serious risks to the environment.

The need to better protect the environment before, during (including in situations of occupation) and after armed conflicts is increasingly evident. The recent efforts of the International Law Commission (ILC), the United Nations body of legal experts responsible for promoting the progressive development of international law and its codification, constitute a decisive step forward.

Establish the legal framework

In 2019, the CIT proposed 28 draft principles for the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts. The draft principles establish measures to protect the environment throughout the cycle of armed conflict. They include provisions aimed at preventing and mitigating environmental damage (mainly before and during armed conflict, including in situations of occupation) as well as at remedying it after the conflict.

Preventive measures include, for example, designating areas of major environmental and cultural significance as protected areas providing protection against attack, “as long as [they do] do not contain a military objective.

The draft principles also address the role that the exploitation of natural resources plays in fueling armed conflicts, particularly relevant in intra-state conflicts, which are predominant today. This attention is welcome given that the United Nations Environment Program noted in 2009 that 40 percent of intrastate conflicts that occurred during the previous 60 years were associated with natural resources.

The draft principles reaffirm the prohibition of the plundering of natural resources. They also call on states to adopt measures to ensure that business enterprises operating in or out of their territories exercise due diligence on environmental matters and are held accountable for the environmental damage they cause in conflict zones. .

The draft principles include provisions dealing with situations of occupation, reaffirming the general obligations of the occupying powers to prevent damage to the protected population, to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources and to exercise due diligence to prevent damage to the protected population. not cause damage beyond the occupied territory.

Corrective measures, including post-conflict environmental assessments, repairing environmental damage, and compensating affected people and communities, are particularly important in peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts. But they are also essential to respect for economic, social and cultural rights; Environmental damage caused by conflict can restrict or reduce access to basic necessities such as food and water, disrupt environment-dependent livelihoods and harm human health when soil, l air and water are contaminated with dangerous substances. Often, these effects reverberate for years after the guns have fallen silent. Failure to respond to them worsens human suffering and can increase instability in highly unstable environments.

It is important to note that the draft principles do not create new legal obligations. Instead, they clarify the existing international obligations of different branches of applicable law, including international humanitarian law, international human rights law, international criminal law and international environmental law. For example, the prohibition of looting and the obligation of states to make full reparation for environmental damage are existing obligations under international law.

Other draft principles formulate recommendations to be adopted by States. For example, the draft principles on enterprise reflect this consultative approach. The draft principles recommend that States take appropriate measures to ensure that companies operating in or from their territory exercise due diligence in protecting the environment and are held liable for environmental damage caused when taking action. in an area of ​​armed conflict.

The path to follow

States and other parties can provide comments to improve the draft principles until June 2021 (ILC backgrounders on this issue are available here). Then, the ILC will do a second reading on the principles before they are considered by the United Nations General Assembly in 2022.

The current project can certainly be improved and States, civil society organizations and international organizations should seize this opportunity. One issue that is currently not covered by the draft principles is the liability of non-state armed groups for environmental damage. Given the preponderance of non-State armed groups in armed conflict, there is an urgent need to address this gap.

It is also possible to improve the provisions relating to environmental decontamination. For example, corrective actions should include the obligation to meaningfully consult the people and communities themselves affected by environmental damage. More generally, there is an urgent need for an international mechanism to monitor the protection of the environment in armed conflict and take decisions on alleged violations of international law.

The approval of the draft principles will be an important step which will establish a benchmark for the protection of the environment in armed conflicts. But this is not the end of the journey. States should assess their practices against this framework and ensure that binding national legislation fully implements it. International organizations and civil society should have a role to play in closely monitoring these processes to ensure their success.

Richard pearshouse is responsible for the crisis and the environment at Amnesty International

Sources: Amnesty International, Observatory of Conflicts and the Environment, International Institute for Sustainable Development, International Law Commission, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Reuters, United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, UNICEF, UN News, World Food Program, World Health Organization, World Politics Review

Photo credit: Massive destruction caused by war and damaged most towns and districts of Taiz city, Yemen, thanks to anasalhajj Shutterstock.com.