Forests burned to the ground. Rivers damaged by broken infrastructure. Animals slaughtered and driven from their habitats. The environmental impacts of war are staggering, yet they’re often overshadowed by the societal wreckage created by conflict.
Now in a letter published in the scientific journal Nature, a group of scientists is urging the United Nations to make it a war crime to harm the environment during times of conflict. The UN’s International Law Commission is in talks through Aug. 8, and the scientists are calling on attending members to create a framework “to protect the environment in regions of armed conflict.”
“We call on governments to incorporate explicit safeguards for biodiversity, and to use the commission’s recommendations to finally deliver a Fifth Geneva Convention to uphold environmental protection during such confrontations,” the petition reads.
“Despite calls for a fifth convention two decades ago, military conflict continues to destroy megafauna, push species to extinction, and poison water resources,” the petition continues. “The uncontrolled circulation of arms exacerbates the situation, for instance by driving unsustainable hunting of wildlife.”
Regardless of where war occurs, it devastates local environments. The United States invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 has led to rampant deforestation, polluted water sources, and widespread air pollution. In addition to the pollution created by bombs, the US military regularly burns garbage in open pits, releasing harmful toxins into the air, and heavy machinery causes more dust to circulate in the atmosphere.
When the US attacked Iraq in 1991, bombs containing depleted uranium led to radiation contamination in the soil and water sources, the Guardian reports.
The US military also destroyed millions of acres of forest during the Vietnam war with a toxic substance called “agent orange.” The environmental effects of that bombing campaign are still felt today.
War has also greatly endangered animal and plant species. During the Congolese Civil Wars, for example, animals as diverse as antelopes, elephants, and monkeys were killed and forced to flee their destroyed habitats. Even in times of peace, animals regularly step on leftover land mines. The chemicals used to make weapons can irrevocably contaminate water sources, and the lawlessness engendered by war can give rise to destructive activities like illegal mining operations.
Then there are the contributions militaries make to climate change. The US military burned more oil in Iraq in 2008 alone than the annual amount that would be used by 1.2 million cars. Overall, the US military releases more greenhouse gas emissions by itself than many countries. Armies also regularly torch oil wells to thwart their enemies, releasing immense amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in the process.
The UN already urges countries to protect the environment during times of conflict through the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. A UN environment resolution was also adopted in 2016 to promote strong environmental safeguards in war.
Ultimately, if harming the environment was a war crime, then most acts of modern warfare would essentially be forbidden. After all, there’s no way to drop a bomb without harming the ground it falls on.