Louise Sarsfield Collins

Louise Sarsfield Collins

Thursday last, 10 January 2013 a group of students, experts, and professionals gathered in Dublin to discuss what protections, if any, are afforded to the natural environment during armed conflicts be they international or non-International in character.

The discussion was facilitated by Dr Heike Spieker, German Red Cross and Ms Tara Smith, Irish Aid and the Irish Centre of Human Rights, NUI Galway, both of whom have particular research interests in this area.

While the natural environment is often not at the forefront of people’s minds when considering the effects of armed conflict and war, it nonetheless is always impacted to some degree. This can be anything from damage to fields by heavy tanks from which the ground can recover in a few months, nudification of plant life from herbicides or other harmful chemicals, or the long-lasting effects of nuclear weapons.

The audience were reminded that in the case of international armed conflicts between states there are a number of articles in treaty law which seek to protect the environment. Of specific relevance is the Environmental Modification Convention, 1976 (ENMOD) as well as Articles 35 and 55 of Additional Protocol I, 1977. However, there is no specific mention in Additional Protocol II not does the ENMOD Convention have effect in non-international armed conflict.

Even within international armed conflicts, the threshold of damage required to be in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) is quite high and there are no universally agreed upon definitions of what exactly is meant by terms such as “wide-spread”, “long-term” or “severe”. Even amongst scientists there are varying opinions in this regard.

In practice, much of the protection afforded the natural environment during armed conflicts, especially during non-international armed conflicts spring from its quality as a ‘civilian object’ or ‘civilian property’. Civilians and civilian objects are protected against being the direct target of attack during armed conflict. Unfortunately this does not protect the environment (or other civilian object) from becoming collateral damage or from losing their protected status if used by armed groups. Furthermore, resources contained within the natural environment such as diamonds, oil, or even water are contributing factors in armed conflicts across the globe.

Throughout the lively discussion, many questions were asked and issues raised about how the law might be further developed to protect the environment during war or how existing laws might be used to better protect through indirect application. Unfortunately, no ready solutions were discovered although most in attendance did feel that there is a lacuna in the law that might be worth addressing in the future.

If you would like more information about our IHL Dissemination Activities or how to register for future IHL Roundtable discussions please visit www.redcross.ie-IHL or email me lscollins [@] redcross.ie