UN calls for strengthening of environmental laws in armed conflict

6 November 2009 – Environmental protection laws in times of conflict should be clarified, strengthened and enforced o better protect States’ natural assets during times of war, according to a report released today by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The report, drawing on the expertise of 20 legal specialists, underlines the need to modernize international law regulating warfare, and include a new legal instrument that will “demilitarize” and protect ecosystems such as groundwater aquifers, agricultural and grazing lands, parks, national forests and habitats of endangered species.

International law regulating warfare was developed in an era of State-against-State conflicts, but today the overwhelming majority of conflicts are internal, meaning that many environmental provisions are not applicable.

"I call on Member States to clarify and expand law on environmental protection in times of war,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message released today.

“Existing legal instruments should be adapted to reflect the predominantly internal nature of today's armed conflicts.”

While the Geneva Convention addresses environmental protection, experts deem its wording too “stringent and imprecise,” and recommend that the threshold for environmental damage be defined as severe environmental impacts over several hundred square kilometers and damage that persists for a period of several months or over a season.

At the outset of any conflict, critical natural resources and areas of ecological importance would be delineated and designated as “demilitarized zones,” according to the report, entitled Protecting the Environment during Armed Conflict: An Inventory and Analysis of International Law.

“Destroying and damaging the natural assets and ecological infrastructure of a country or community should be an issue of highest humanitarian concern,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director.

“The loss of freshwaters and grazing lands to croplands and forests not only leads to direct suffering, but also undermines the survival, the livelihoods and the opportunities for people to recover during and after a conflict,” he added.

The report calls on the General Assembly to request the International Law Commission to carry out a review of the existing laws relating to the environment and conflict, and to create a UN body to monitor violations and process compensation for environmental damage.

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