The UN's International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict
by Gar Smith

If There Must Be War, There Must Be Environmental Law
by Klaus Toepfer

November 21, 2003

November 6 -- The UN's International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict
Gar Smith / The-Edge / AlterNet (Nov. 5, 2003)

The United Nations has declared an international "Green Day against War."
War is humanity's deadliest pastime. From 500 BC to AD 2003 more than 1,000 major wars have burned their way into the pages of recorded history. As many as 258 million people died in the 165 wars that ravaged the Twentieth Century. But for each of the 17 million soldiers who fell in WWII, two innocent civilians also died. Today, the major victims of modern warfare (75 percent) are civilians.

But there is another overlooked casualty of war - the environment. In 2002, United Nations Resolution 564 created the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. The first anniversary of the UN's "Green Day Against War" falls on Nov. 6, 2003.

UN Environment Program Executive Director Klaus Toefer explains the need for this special day of reflection: "The environment and its natural resources are all too often forgotten as the long-term casualty of war.... Environmental security... must no longer be viewed as a luxury but needs to be seen as a fundamental part of a long-lasting peace policy."

Flaming Wells, Darkened Skies, Poisoned Waters
The world still recoils at the images of the 1991 Gulf War, when lakes of oil poisoned land and sea and the soot from 700 flaming wells darkened the skies. Thousands of seabirds, sea mammals and fish died in the aftermath.

War exterminates wildlife, disrupts habitats, contaminates the land, air and water, destroys villages, farmland, and urban infrastructure. In Vietnam, the US dropped 25 million bombs and 19 million gallons of chemical weapons on forests and fields. In 1991, the US dropped 5,000 tons of bombs on Iraq, destroying 9,000 homes. In 2003, the US hit Iraq with 28,000 rockets, bombs and missiles, many containing potentially toxic depleted uranium.

To put it simply: war pollutes. Bombs, missiles, shells and bullets flood the environment with lead, nitrates, nitrites, hydrocarbons, phosphorous, radioactive debris, corrosive and toxic heavy metals. Military exercises and military bases also damage and despoil the environment. With 247,000 soldiers stationed at 752 bases in 130 countries, the Pentagon is the world's biggest military polluter.

Toepfer notes that "tens of millions of explosives remain scattered around the world in former conflict areas like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia and on the African Continent." Unexploded landmines and clusterbombs prevent farmers from returning to their land, frequently forcing them to clear-cut forests to plant new crops.

The world's armies burn nearly 2 billion barrels of oil annually and generate as much as 10 percent of global air pollution. The 1991 Gulf War produced an estimated 80,000 tons of climate-warming gases.

While international clashes are devastating, even internal conflicts can wreak environmental calamity. Civil war has eliminated 90 percent of the wildlife in Angola's national parks and reserves and has triggered the felling of an estimated five million trees in Sri Lanka.

War's Environmental Impacts Are Felt at Home and Abroad
The environmental damage is not confined to foreign lands. Unexploded ordnance now lies scattered over more than 15 million acres in the US. The US is home to more than 14,000 contaminated military sites, many located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has wisely remarked: "Poverty, environmental degradation and despair are destroyers of people, of societies, of nations. This unholy trinity can destabilize countries, even entire regions".

Global spending on the military now stands at around $16.2 billion a week. The cost of one $1.5 billion Trident submarine could immunize the world's children against six deadly diseases and prevent 1 million deaths a year.

As Klaus Toepfer notes: "a polluted environment, contaminated water supplies and sullied land and air, are not a long term recipe for stability." With this in mind, Toepfer has issued a call for the creation of a "Green Geneva Convention."

"We have the Geneva Conventions, aimed at safeguarding the rights of prisoners and civilians," Toepfer argues, "We need similar safeguards for the environment."

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War
This article was syndicated by AlterNet:

If There Must Be War, There Must Be Environmental Law
Klaus Toepfer / United Nations Environment Programme

The Executive Director of the United Nations' Environment Program calls for the creation of a "Green Geneva Convention."
Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), wrote this commentary to mark November 6 as the International Day for Preventing Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

NAIROBI (November 6, 2003) -- War must and should always be a last resort, and if armed conflict occurs, warring factions have a duty to minimize the casualties and the suffering of those caught in the crossfire. Another duty must also be considered, namely to minimize the damage and pollution to air, water and soil supplies.

A post-conflict society will struggle even harder to recover its dignity, its health and its future if the very life support systems upon which people rely have been partially or wholly destroyed.

The environment has, since the dawn of time, been one of the casualties of war. In the fifth century BC, the retreating Scythians scorched the earth and polluted drinking water supplies, to slow the advancing Persians.

At the end of the final Punic war, in the second century BC, the conquering Romans, salted the soils around Carthage to make them infertile and the area uninhabitable. A damaged and degraded land was seen as way to permanently end the Phoenicians' might.

During the Vietnam War of the 1970s, the United States used defoliants to expose enemy positions in heavily forested areas. US forces apply defoliant in Vietnam to remove vegetation. Tests were also carried out on rain seeding in an attempt to trigger downpours to impede and bog down enemy movements on the Ho Chi Min Trail.

More recently, during the first Gulf War of the early 1990s, Iraqi troops deliberately sabotaged oil installations with smoke, turning day into night, and oil spills severely polluting the desert and the waters of the Gulf.

The Environment Is a Casualty of War
The environment is what you might also call an innocent bystander damaged not deliberately but as a result of a hit on a target such as a chemical plant or hydroelectric dam.

The environment can also be a casualty as a result of a military machine deliberately overexploiting natural resources. During World War I, Turkey severely depleted the forests in the Lebanon for fuel for its railways.

More recently, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and the Sudan, rhinos, gorillas and other wildlife have been killed to raise money for armies.

While humankind's ability to wage war continues apace with new and even more potentially devastating weapons, international rules and laws designed to minimize the impact on the Earth's life support systems have lagged far behind.

We have the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 that do have environmental implications. However, their primary aims are the protection of civilians, prisoners of war, the sick and wounded, and cultural objects such as internationally important monuments.

There have also been a myriad of treaties attempting to outlaw specific targets such as dams, or military acts such as torching crops that are seen by many as targeting and attempting to demoralize the civilian population rather than an enemy army.

There are also treaties that attempt to regulate specific weapons that may have environmental implications. One thinks of the Chemicals Weapon Convention of 1997 and ones covering nuclear weapons and landmines.

This does not mean that there have not been attempts to specifically address the environmental aspects of war.

One, article 35 of what is known as the Geneva Protocol I, prohibits combatants from "methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long term and severe damage to the natural environment."

The other, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, aims to tackle new technologies that might, for example, alter weather systems as a way of waging war.

But most legal experts have concluded that these and others fall far short of what is ideal and what is needed.

A New Set of Environmental Laws Is Needed
In a new report, commissioned by the German Environment Ministry, Daniel Bodansky of the School of Law, University of Georgia, argues that the requirement of proving "widespread, long term and severe damage" renders the Geneva Protocol I ineffective in respect of environmental protection.

The environmental damage caused by the Iraqi forces in 1991 that resulted in nearly 700 oil fires and oil spills 40 times greater than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, is a case in point.

The Protocol also appears silent on the issue of long term risk, of the so-called precautionary approach which guides many of our modern environmental treaties covering everything from the ozone layer to climate change.

It is possible that, 20 or so years down the road, some of the pollution arising from recent theaters of war may prove to be a long term environmental and public health hazard. But the Protocol only applies to expected damages rather than possible ones.

Civilian casualties, the displaced and the dispossessed, will be and should be the focus of our attention during and immediately after hostilities cease. But the environment, which has a key role in ensuring the stability of a country and its citizens, cannot be ignored.

The world is slowly waking up to the powerful links between a healthy environment and national and regional stability, or to use the buzz phrase "environment security." And there are many ways in which the world can improve the security of natural resources and nature's life support systems during conflict. Some are legal, others are codes of conduct or improved guidelines for military commanders on what constitute legitimate targets.

New Standards of Military Responsibility Are Required
Should striking an oil tanker sailing near a coral reef be deemed unacceptable or a legitimate act of war? Does the crippling of an enemy's oil supplies justify the killing of an ecosystem upon which hundreds, maybe thousands, of the poor rely for food in the form of fish?

These are the kinds of issues that the world needs to grapple with. International law is in its infancy, war is not. It is time that international law, or at the very least the rules of engagement, achieved some kind of maturity, if not full adulthood.

The World Needs a 'Green Geneva Convention'
The original Geneva Conventions have demonstrated that the world can take humanitarian steps designed to minimize suffering, and many countries adhere to these principles.

The United Nations, since the war in the Balkans, has been increasingly linking environmental assessments and clean-up with the humanitarian effort, which gives some indication of the importance of the issue.

So, on this second observance of the International Day for Preventing Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, let us reflect on the next steps needed to bring the laws of war into a more sustainable, 21st century.

Visit the UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Unit at:

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