Listen Now

An environmental movement for times of war, too

While current global action focuses on the impact of humans and industry on the environment during peacetime, what about during conflict?

By: /
27 November, 2019
A fire and smoke rises from a wheat field on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Rashid
Kira Walker
By: Kira Walker

Journalist and photographer

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.

The recent open letter to Nature has reopened the debate.

Sarah Durant, senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London and co-author of the open letter, said some form of legal mechanism is needed to ensure compliance, as is a paradigm shift wherein protection of civilians and the environment are considered one and the same. “Long-term peace and stability requires a clean and productive environment, that is able to supply food, water and clean air.”

Durant acknowledged, however, that it might be more productive to approach the issue through different legal means.

Calls for a fifth, or “green,” Geneva Convention are effective at garnering attention and media coverage, which Weir attributed to a simplistic attraction to the idea of having one over-arching document to address the obvious gaps and opportunities in the legal framework. Yet for an issue as vast and crosscutting as conflict and the environment, a one-size-fits-all solution may not be the most effective way to enhance legal protection. Further, lacking support from states and civil society, Weir said it’s unlikely the Geneva Conventions will ever be reopened for negotiation. “It’s too risky,” he said.

A better approach, he suggested, is to break the issue down into what is needed, and what would actually be effective.

Several other obstacles may impede progress, such as the under-prioritization of the environment in conflict and security debates.

For the Conflict and Environment Observatory, key considerations include post-conflict environmental assistance becoming standard, not ad-hoc as it currently is; ensuring sustained information flows on environmental damage in conflict, which is necessary for states to address conflict-related environment issues; developing norms that will enhance protection, then upholding compliance; and making sure the conflict-environment issue is always on the agenda of the international community, as opposed to its current role as a bit player in various UN processes and initiatives.

So far, there have been incremental — if fragmented — steps forward.

The 2016 and 2017 sessions of the UN Environment Assembly — the leading global decision-making body on environment — marked a turning point in the recognition of the international community, when two resolutions were passed by consensus on the protection of the environment in areas affected by conflict and conflict pollution.

This year, the UN’s International Law Commission (ILC) — whose mandate is to progressively develop and codify international law — provisionally adopted 28 draft principles, slated for adoption in 2021, to enhance protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts, which has been widely applauded as a significant and long overdue step.

Next April, the International Committee of the Red Cross will release a revised version of their Guidelines for Military Manuals, which strive to increase awareness of the existing law of armed conflict in order to improve environmental conduct during military operations.

Non-state armed groups remain a sticking point, however. Despite the increase in non-international armed conflicts and the growth of non-state armed groups that play a role in them, as in Libya and Syria, states remain reluctant to address their conduct for fear of lending them legitimacy. Notably, the ILC’s draft principles failed to mention the environmental conduct of non-state armed groups, but experts agreed it’s getting harder to ignore what’s been called the “elephant in the room.”

“It’s difficult to justify continuing to refuse to engage with them,” said Weir.

Several other obstacles may impede progress, such as the under-prioritization of the environment in conflict and security debates. Though understandable because of the direct humanitarian consequences in conflict, “environmental damage has consequences for people, and that connection is not necessarily being made,” said Weir.

Competing global environmental issues, like climate change and biodiversity loss, heighten the difficulty of building prioritization around conflict and the environment, he added, which is further complicated by it being dealt with across multiple UN forums, and not necessarily in a concerted way.

Peter Gleick, an expert on water and climate issues and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, said the ambiguities and gaps in existing laws and norms can be, and often are, exploited by bad actors. Consequently, more explicit definitions are needed on how the environment should be protected during conflict.

Gleick would also like improvements in the ability of the international community to enforce international laws and norms, to hold those responsible for harm to account. “It should be easier for transgressions against these protections to be brought to appropriate courts of justice at the national or international level,” he said.

With the current erosion of multilateralism, this will prove a challenging task. As Weir noted, the current international geopolitical context is not especially conducive to steps forward in international law.

At the same time, he added, there’s a definite increasing trend of stakeholders engaging on this topic — lawmakers, civil society, practitioners, think tanks — that shows no sign of abating: “Maybe in five to 10 years, we’ll be in a situation where there’s significant international interest to try and develop some kind of [legal] mechanism.”

While the upcoming UN climate meeting, COP25, which runs December 2 to 13 in Spain, will likely avoid the topic, as its focus in relation to conflict is on addressing the security threats posed by climate change rather than environmental damage, there will likely be more discussion in 2020.

As awareness builds and efforts to enhance legal protections creep forward, Weir noted it would be worth watching state reception to the International Committee of the Red Cross revised guidelines for Military Manuals next April, particularly because the 1994 version was so poorly received. “It’s another test of whether perceptions have changed on the environment,” he said.

Lee-Anne Broadhead, professor at Canada’s Cape Breton University, and author of a recently published article on the connections between militarism and environmental insecurity, said efforts to enhance environmental protections during conflict — while laudable and necessary — must be contextualized within the status-quo industrial-military process, which inflicts environmental damage at every stage, not just during war itself.

“From the mining of resources to be used to build the weapons, through their development, testing, storage, and use or disposal, the ecological consequences are incalculable,” she said. “The only way to protect the natural world of which we are a part is through the realization of a culture of peace.”

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter