From the massive defoliation campaigns of the Vietnam War to the extensive pollution caused by the destruction of 600 oil wells in Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War, the environment continues to fall victim to armed conflict worldwide. UNEP has conducted over twenty post-conflict assessments since 1999, using state-of-the-art science to determine the environmental impacts of war. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, Sudan and the Gaza Strip, UNEP has found that armed conflict causes significant harm to the environment and the communities that depend on natural resources. Direct and indirect environmental damage, coupled with the collapse of institutions, lead to environmental risks that can threaten people’s health, livelihoods and security, and ultimately undermine post-conflict peacebuilding. Because the environment and natural resources are crucial for building and consolidating peace, it is urgent that their protection in times of armed conflict be strengthened.
While the environment and natural resources enjoy protection under several important international legal instruments – such as the Geneva Conventions and their respective protocols – the implementation and enforcement of these instruments remains very weak. There are few international mechanisms to monitor infringements or address claims for environmental damage sustained during warfare. In 2001, the UN General Assembly declared the 6th of November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict (A/RES/56/4), recognizing the need to improve the protection of natural resources and the environment during times of armed conflicts.
As part of the Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding programme, UNEP is working with key partners such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to analyze and strengthen international laws protecting the environment during times of conflict. UNEP also supports the UN Secretary General and other actors in events associated with the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict on 6 November of each year.
UNEP, in cooperation with the Environmental Law Institute and the International Committee of the Red Cross, published a flagship policy report in 2009 entitled: “Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict: An Inventory and Analysis of International Law." The report was based on an analysis of existing international legal frameworks, and on the outcomes of an expert meeting of twenty leading specialists in international law in March 2009.
The report was issued together with a message from the Secretary-General on the occasion of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict on 6 November 2009. Aimed at the legal community as well as policy and decision-makers, UNEP’s report identifies the current gaps and weaknesses in the international legal framework for protecting the environment during armed conflict and concludes with twelve concrete recommendations on ways to strengthen the law and its enforcement.
In particular, the report finds that while the environment and natural resources enjoy protection under several important international legal instruments, such as Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, the implementation and enforcement of these provisions remains very weak. One of the most significant gaps identified in the international framework is that most of legal instruments were designed for international armed conflicts and do not apply to civil wars. Furthermore, imprecise definitions of damage such as “widespread, long-term and severe” imply thresholds that are almost impossible to demonstrate. Another gap is that there are few international mechanisms to monitor infringements or address claims for environmental damage sustained during warfare.
The report calls on the International Law Commission to examine the existing international law for protecting the environment during armed conflict and to recommend how it can be clarified, codified and expanded. The report also calls on the International Committee of the Red Cross to update its 1999 “Guidelines on the Protection of the Environment during Armed Conflict” and for States to reflect these updated guidelines in their respective national legislation. Finally, the report recommends that a new legal instrument granting place-based protection for critical natural resources and areas of ecological importance during armed conflicts be developed based on the concept of “demilitarized zones”.
Following the release of the report, UNEP has been working with a number of partners to begin implementing its recommendations, including INTERPOL, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Law Commission (ILC). Two major outcomes of this work can be identified. First, the ICRC included “protection of the natural environment” as a priority for strengthening International Humanitarian Law in 2011. Second, the International Legal Commission (ILC) formally adopted one of the key recommendations from the UNEP report in 2013 and will begin assessing how international law could better protect the environment before, during and after armed conflicts. Ms. Marie Jacobsson (Sweden) was appointed as the ILC Special Rapporteur for this work programme. UNEP has engaged in formal and informal discussions on how lessons learned from UNEP’s operations can be used.
Publications of this pillar
The publications that have resulted from this pillar of work include:
For a full list of all ECP publications click here.
For further information on UNEP's environment and legal protection work, please contact David Jensen, Head of ECP, at: firstname.lastname@example.org