Annan calls for expanded laws against environmental damage in war

In a message to mark the observance of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, the Secretary-General said, “I urge the international community to examine how legal and other mechanisms can be strengthened to encourage environmental protection in wartime.”Ensuring environmental sustainability is not a luxury; it is a prerequisite for the future peace and prosperity of our planet.”The instances in which the environment was deliberately targeted have been relatively few, he said, but too many grey areas remained where more care should be exercised to protect the environmental base on which sustainable development and recovery from conflict largely depended.The Geneva Conventions and Protocols and other international laws had discouraged the worst excesses of armed conflict, including targeting civilians, mistreating prisoners of war, and destroying sensitive infrastructure, such as large dams and nuclear power stations, he said.The increasingly devastating potential of modern warfare showed, however, that existing international laws have not fully addressed environmental dangers, such as the indiscriminate use of landmines, the ecological destruction caused by mass movements of refugees and the potential devastation threatened by weapons of mass destruction, he said.Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Nairobi, Kenya, said two international agreements cover some ground.Article 35 of the 1977 Geneva Protocol I bans “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment,” he said.The 1976 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) was designed to tackle new, environmentally unfriendly technologies for waging war.”But most legal experts have concluded that these and others fall far short of what is ideal and what is needed,” Mr. Toepfer said.In a new report commissioned by the German Environment Ministry, Daniel Bodansky of the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, Georgia, United States, argued that the requirement to prove “widespread, long-term and severe damage” rendered the Geneva Protocol I ineffective for environmental protection, the UNEP chief noted.”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,” Mr. Toepfer said.Twenty or so years down the road, some of the pollution arising from recent theatres of war might prove to be a long-term environmental and public health hazard, he said, but the Protocol applied to expected damage, rather than possible hazards.”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?” he asked.Among the historical examples of environmental damage in war, he recalled, the Scythians scorched the earth to slow the advancing Persians, the Romans salted the land around Carthage to make it infertile and the Turks depleted Lebanon’s forests to run railways.The UNEP chief also reminded the international community that the United States used chemical defoliants on Viet Nam, Iraqis sabotaged oil installations and the Congolese, Rwandans and Sudanese killed scarce wild animals to raise funds for armies.

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