Conflict and the Environment

Armed conflicts and military activities can damage the environment, with negative consequences for people and ecosystems. Some of these types of harm are the direct result of how, where, and with what weapons wars are fought; others are the indirect result of the social, political, and economic conditions they create.

Credit: U.S. Army, date unknown

A growing number of disarmament, environment, and human rights organizations are working to raise international awareness of the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts and military activities. They have called for stronger laws, more effective monitoring, and better responses by states and the humanitarian community. The topic is on the agenda of the UN Environment Assembly, General Assembly, Human Rights Council, and Security Council, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In July 2019, the UN International Law Commission (ILC) adopted 28 draft legal principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts (PERAC); the principles lay out measures to prevent and remediate environmental damage associated with conflict.

The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), and its predecessor, the Toxic Remnants of War Project, as well as the Dutch peace organization PAX have been promoting the importance of the environment in humanitarian disarmament since 2011. Toxic remnants of war (TRW), addressed in one of the ILC’s principles, are particularly relevant to humanitarian disarmament. Defined as “toxic or radiological substance[s] resulting from military activities that form a hazard to humans or ecosystems,” TRW may result from the nature of certain weapons (e.g., nuclear weapons) and the manner in which they are used (e.g., the use of explosive weapons in populated areas). There is also a growing interest in ensuring that humanitarian disarmament field operations reduce their environmental footprint, support sustainable development in the communities where they take place, and address the risks posed by climate change.