Jillian Rafferty, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative
A new framework for responding to the human consequences of conflict-related environmental harm aims to improve the lot of those affected and fill a gap in international law and practice.
Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War lays out 14 principles designed to address victims’ immediate and ongoing needs and to promote the full realization of their human rights. The report, which also includes an in-depth commentary, was launched this week by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS).
The report’s authors drew heavily from humanitarian disarmament’s well-established concept of victim assistance and looked also to international human rights law, international environmental law, and state practice. They adapted that precedent to deal with the distinctive effects of toxic remnants of war (TRW), i.e., toxic or radiological substances resulting from military activities that form a hazard to humans or ecosystems.
IHRC and CEOBS launched the report Wednesday with a “Road to Geneva” webinar hosted by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association Law Interest Group and moderated by Chatham House’s Oli Brown. IHRC Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Bonnie Docherty, who was the report’s lead author, and CEOBS Research and Policy Director Doug Weir opened the event. A panel of discussants then commented on the principles based on their particular expertise. The panelists included: former UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Toxics Baskut Tuncak; Joint UNEP/OCHA Environmental Unit Programme Officer Emilia Wahlstrom; and King’s College London Centre for the Study of Conflict Professor Richard Sullivan.
As noted in the report, military activities have long taken a heavy toll on the environment—and that toll carries with it a real cost for people and for ecosystems. Efforts to minimize environmental harm have increased in recent years, thanks in part to a growing recognition that a healthy environment is central to the realization of human rights, sustainable development, and peacebuilding. But a framework designed to meet the short- and long-term needs of those affected has been absent.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian disarmament movement has brought the concept of victim assistance to the fore. Humanitarian disarmament treaties—notably, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)—require states parties to provide assistance to all people harmed by the banned weapons or the remnants they left behind.
Confronting Conflict Pollution sits at the nexus of those two efforts, providing a set of principles for what robust victim assistance can and should look like in the context of toxic remnants of war.
The launch event began with remarks by CEOBS’s Doug Weir, who has long worked to raise awareness of the harmful effects of toxic remnants of war on people and the environment. Weir focused on the sources of TRW, such as military herbicides, munitions disposal, and emissions from military bases. He stressed the importance of addressing the many kinds of TRW collectively, to allow for a comprehensive approach that incorporates both health and environmental assessments and monitoring in the short- and long-term.
In her remarks, report author Bonnie Docherty provided an overview of the principles and of the international legal precedent from which they are drawn. The principles, she explained, encompass a broad range of harm and assistance, and they call on all states, as well as civil society and international organizations, to share responsibility for assisting victims. The principles also identify key elements of implementation, such as the collection and dissemination of information, adoption of a national strategy, and capacity building. Finally, they lay out four overarching guiding principles: accessibility, inclusivity, non-discrimination, and transparency. As a whole, the principles “embody a collective commitment to work towards victims’ full and effective participation in society and to help them realize their human rights.”
The authors hope the report will increase international awareness of the need for programs to assist TRW victims and inform the development and implementation of those programs.
Complete video of the webinar launching Confronting Conflict Pollution, held September 30, 2020. Credit: Environmental Peacebuilding Association Law Interest Group, 2020.
After Weir’s and Docherty’s remarks, each of the invited discussants shared their reflections on the report and the value of its principles.
Baskut Tuncak noted that toxic exposures, such as those induced by toxic remnants of war, constitute a “vicious form of violence”—what has often been referred to as “environmental violence.” Tuncak framed environmental violence as a human rights issue that directly implicated the human rights to life, a life of dignity, political participation, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. In addition, Tuncak stressed the multiplicity of trauma caused by TRW, noting that the enduring physical trauma is frequently accompanied by an “immense psychological frustration of being left without an effective remedy.” The value of the report’s principles, Tuncak argued, is in setting out the kinds of assistance and remedies crucial to assisting victims of TRW-related harm.
Emilia Wahlstrom provided a humanitarian perspective on TRW. She described the principles as a “very welcome addition” to preexisting efforts to assist victims of TRW, noting the report’s clear analysis of policy, practice, legal mechanisms, and past precedent. She highlighted the importance of humanitarian actors as trusted partners in victim assistance efforts and noted that they can help collect and disseminate evidence of harm, facilitate the exchange of information among states and other actors, and build capacity—all activities central to the report’s principles.
Finally, Professor Richard Sullivan viewed the principles in light of medical and health sciences. Sullivan discussed the numerous difficulties the medical field has faced in grappling with TRW and other toxicity-related harm, especially due to prevalent but hard-to-trace intergenerational impacts. He also called on the medical community to establish “new collaborations across disciplinary bounds” to enable researchers and physicians to tackle the challenges that arise in treating the short- and long-term effects of toxicity. Sullivan argued for the importance of “changing the health narrative”: physicians, he said, have not incorporated TRW in their health assessments of fragile ecosystems—and that should change.
Now that the report has been released, IHRC and CEOBS hope that the principles will inform discussions about conflict pollution in fora such as the TPNW’s First Meeting of States Parties and the International Law Commission debates. Docherty concluded her remarks by encouraging states, as well as international organizations and civil society, to “engage with and embrace the principles in their efforts to address the human consequences of environmental damage associated with armed conflict.” Turning principles into practice is a gradual process, but well worth the effort. As humanitarian disarmament has shown, the acceptance and implementation of victim assistance standards can reduce human suffering and improve lives.