War and environmental law

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War can heavily damage the environment, and warring countries often place operational requirements ahead of environmental concerns for the duration of the war. Some international law is designed to limit this environmental harm.

Environmental impact of war[edit]

War and military activities have obvious detrimental impacts on the environment.[1] Weaponry, troop movements, land mines, creation and destruction of buildings, destruction of forests by defoliation or general military usage, poisoning of water sources, target-shooting of animals for practice, consumption of endangered species out of desperation etc., are just some of the examples of how both war and peacetime military activities (such as training, base construction, and transportation of weaponry) harm the environment.[2]


From a legal standpoint, environmental protection during times of war and military activities is addressed partially by international environmental law. Further sources are also found in areas of law such as general international law, the laws of war, human rights law and local laws of each affected country. However, this article is chiefly focused on the environment and as soon as two countries are battling it out, the issue becomes one of international concern. Thus, international environmental law is the appropriate focus here.

The law of armed conflict is not very well developed in comparison to other areas of international law. This is because there are no international institutions in place to deal with its development and implementation, or to monitor its observance. Relying on the parties to implement it during the most heated time of a country's history is a little like asking the thief to guard a jewellery store - the temptation to ignore the obligation and to overstep the mark is enormous. Military restraint is often theoretical rather than real and the promise of punishment for environmental damage does not appear to weigh heavily on the minds of military commanders.

National laws dealing with environmental degradation caused by military activities during peacetime are also not very strong. Many countries regard military activities as sacrosanct, permitting environmental destruction in the name of country protection. However, there are indications in some countries that national governments are taking their environmental responsibilities more seriously in relation to military activities and it is perhaps from these national experiences in controlling excesses that future international controls may be better modelled and implemented.

UN treaties[edit]

Several United Nations treaties, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, the 1972 World Heritage Convention and the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention have provisions to limit the environmental impacts of war or military activities.

1977 Environmental Modification Convention[edit]

This treaty makes explicit reference to the environment. It prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification techniques having "widespread, long-lasting or severe effects."

This treaty is in force and has been ratified (accepted as binding) by leading military powers.

Additional Protocol I & Protocol II[edit]

Additional Protocols I and II are amendments to the Fourth Geneva Convention. It prohibits methods of warfare intended to or expected to cause "widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment", or to prejudice the health or survival of the civilian population.

The understanding behind this obligation is that this is aimed directly at those capable of unleashing the use of unconventional weapons that cause biological and chemical warfare (e.g. herbicides, fungicides, chemical agents etc.).

Under this Protocol, parties must take care to protect the natural environment. In addition, the Protocol provides for limits on the situations during which a warring side can make use of "works or installations containing dangerous forces" as an object of attack. This is aimed squarely at such potentially devastating sites as nuclear power plants, power plants and large dams or waterworks.

Protocol II has the same limitations but in relation only to non-international armed conflict.

Although both Protocols have been ratified widely, there are many major Western military powers missing from the ratification.

1972 World Heritage Convention[edit]

Although not related to armed conflict, the obligations under this convention to protect cultural or ecologically significant sites is of potential usefulness. This is especially important in relation to military activities during peacetime but may also become relevant during armed conflict to deter direct attacks on such sites. Partly this will depend on raising the awareness of soldiers during both peace and war times that there are some sites in our world of such significance that their destruction is absolutely forbidden ethically, culturally and morally.

Proposed Fifth Geneva Convention[edit]

Attempts have been made to get a specific Geneva convention dealing with protection of the environment during times of armed conflict but so far this has not been successful.

Customary international law[edit]

Customary international law also has something to say about protection of the environment during times of armed conflict and military activities.

  • Under the Rio Declaration, Principle 24 provides:

"States shall ... respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary."

  • UN General Assembly Resolution 47/37 (1992) provides:[3]

"[D]estruction of the environment not justified by military necessity and carried out wantonly is clearly contrary to existing international law."

Other sources[edit]

  • The ILC has a Code of Offences Against the Peace and Security of Mankind.
  • The International Criminal Court treats certain acts of serious and intentional harm to the environment as war crimes. In this instance, there is a possibility for holding an individual responsible for committing such acts against the environment.

Case law[edit]

In the case of the Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion, the ICJ found that as a matter of general international law that States must take the environment into account when deciding on what is necessary and proportionate in pursuing legitimate military objectives. The ICJ stated that there must be a respect for the environment and that this will be a factor that is weighed when considering the legitimacy or otherwise of the military actions.


The international organisations with environmental mandates may be called upon during times of armed conflict to assist with mediating or remedying damage caused by armed conflict. Such agencies as the UN Environment Programme, the World Health Organization and the IMO will be of relevance here. The UN Security Council has also demonstrated environmental concern in deliberations on recent conflicts, for example, during the 1991 Gulf War. UNEP and IMO were also involved in this conflict, attempting to remedy the most serious of the environmental impacts.

  • UNEP
  • IMO
  • ICAO
  • WHO
  • International Committee of the Red Cross[4]


  1. ^ World Resources Institute
  2. ^ Mughal, Muhammad Aurang Zeb. 2013. "Persian Gulf Desert and Semi-desert." Biomes & Ecosystems, Vol. 3, Robert Warren Howarth (ed.). Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, pp. 1000-1002.
  3. ^ UN General Assembly Resolution 47/37 (1992)
  4. ^ International Committee of the Red Cross

External links[edit]