Addressing Environmental Consequences of War

The past century has seen the development of particularly devastating military technologies. The horrific consequences of armed conflict affect more than just the innocent victims of a war zone. Military conflict has also wrought large-scale environmental devastation, whether in the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts and seas of the Persian Gulf, or the mountains of Africa. This destruction is occurring despite a large body of legal and moral prescriptions that require military actions to focus on combatants. Clear standards of conduct and a credible threat of civil and criminal sanctions for violations of those standards is critical if these environmental wrongs, along with other wartime atrocities, are to be deterred and punished.

For the past decade, the Environmental Law Institute has been a leading voice in elaborating the role of international laws and institutions for preventing, remediating, and redressing the environmental impacts of armed conflict. In 1998, ELI, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences co-hosted the First International Conference on Addressing Environmental Consequences of War. This high-profile event that brought together government officials, experts in international and environmental law, military officers, and scholars from all over the world to discuss the ethical, legal, economical, and political aspects of war’s impacts on the environment. These discussions resulted in a definitive monograph, The Environmental Consequences of War, edited by ELI and published by Cambridge University Press in 2000.

Since the conference, ELI staff have continued to foster dialogue on this important topic, authoring a series of widely disseminated articles on redressing wartime environmental damage and giving numerous interviews with print, television, radio, and internet journalists. During the 1999 Kosovo conflict, ELI served as a key resource for members of the press and the public concerned with issues of the legality of bombing certain targets, such as chemical plants near populated areas; employing certain weapons, such as depleted uranium munitions and cluster bombs; and adopting certain tactics, such as high-altitude bombing. The political and legal consequences of these actions are still being debated.

As a follow-up to the 1998 conference, ELI assisted in the development of a 2005 Georgetown International Environmental Law Review symposium on “International Responses to the Environmental Impacts of War.”

ELI research in the area focuses on four areas:

  • The role of international organizations and civil society in addressing environmental consequences of war;
  • Elaborating legal norms that could constrain wartime environmental damage;
  • The legality of weapons with indiscriminate impacts; and
  • The incorporation of legal norms into military manuals and operating procedures.

By clarifying and advancing legal norms to constrain wartime actions, this initiative contributes to the evolution of international law and institutions that will be able to hold political leaders, military commanders, and rank-and-file soldiers accountable for wartime environmental damage.