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The environment

The environment
United Nations AMID staff plant trees on World Environment Day

During an armed conflict, there is significant potential for environmental damage and destruction to occur. IHL is intended to protect the civilian population and, as the natural environment is indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, IHL seeks to protect the natural environment as well.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) identifies in its updated Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict (included below) ‘most major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 took place in biodiversity hotspots, putting delicate ecological balances at risk.’ It has also been recognised that countries experiencing conflict are on the front line of climate change, with many of the countries considered most vulnerable to climate change also being sites of armed conflict.

What is the relationship between IHL and protection of the environment?

Throughout history, there have been examples of the natural environment being directly attacked or suffering incidental degradation as a result of armed conflict. For instance, the use of herbicides such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, the burning of Kuwaiti oil wells during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the extensive deforestation caused by years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As such, international law, including IHL, has sought to bolster and reaffirm respect for and protection of the natural environment.

In an attempt to do just this, IHL contains a number of prohibitions on environmental damage. This includes a requirement that environmental destruction be taken into account when evaluating the proportionality of an attack on a military objective. There is also a specific prohibition on using methods or means of warfare that are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. Further, IHL contains a specific prohibition on destroying agricultural land and drinking water installations in order to inflict harm on the civilian population.

There are a number of risks relating to direct and indirect damage and destruction to the environment in situations of armed conflict. For example, fighting and attacks in a region can directly lead to the contamination of water, soil and air quality; deforestation and the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Explosive remnants of war can also contaminate the environment and pose risks to wildlife. Indirectly, conflict (particularly protracted conflict) can lead to the exploitation of land and natural resources in an attempt to fund and sustain war efforts, as well as a general reduction in institutional capacity, including for the effective management of the environment during and after conflict.

How is ‘natural environment’ defined?

While ‘natural environment’ is not defined in the Geneva Conventions or their Additional Protocols, the ICRC – in the aforementioned Guidelines – defines this term as ‘the natural world together with the system of inextricable interrelations between living organisms and their inanimate environment, in the widest sense possible’. Therefore, as the ICRC goes on to state, this includes…

…everything that exists or occurs naturally, such as the general hydrosphere, biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere (including fauna, flora, oceans and other bodies of water, soil and rocks) … [and] natural elements that are or may be the product of human intervention, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas, drinking water and livestock.

Directly causing environmental damage

Businesses operating in armed conflict zones may cause environmental damage directly, such as by conducting operations that exacerbate pre-existing environmental or climate-related problems.

Indirectly causing environmental damage

Businesses operating in armed conflict zones should be aware that the IHL rules protecting the environment extend to environmental damage or destruction caused indirectly.

For example, if a business supplies either party to a conflict with the means for carrying out attacks leading to widespread environmental destruction, this may amount to a violation of IHL.

Another example is where a business provides professional advice and/or services to a party to an armed conflict. This may amount to complicity in environmental destruction. Providing engineering advice on how to create massive oil spills or hydro-electric dams in a conflict zone, or sharing scientific knowledge on how to develop weapons that cause long-term environmental harm, can potentially trigger liability for businesses and personnel.

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International Humanitarian Law for Business

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