Here’s How Environmental Damage May Soon Be Punished Like A War Crime

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What will it take to change people’s minds about harming the environment, hunting endangered species, and ecological crimes that reduce our planet’s diversity and resilience?

When those crimes are committed in war zones, a group of scientists from around the world think an addendum to the Geneva Convention is the answer. The journal Nature published an open letter from two dozen renown researchers, calling on world governments to take responsibility for the environmental damage left behind by their military intervention.

“We call on governments to incorporate explicit safeguards for biodiversity,” the letter says. “And the military industry must be held more accountable for the impact of its activities.”

Source: Air Force Historical Support Division
Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run in Vietnam.


The letter coincides with a gathering of the UN’s International Law Commission, which has focused on adding to the 28 principles regarding natural resource conservancy during war. It was published just a few months after another UN report declared at least a million species, including flora and fauna, nearly extinct.

According to Vox, the environment is often overlooked in times of war. The human costs of violence cannot be overemphasized, but the damage done to the planet during military conflicts has left undeniable scars.

Even a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, contamination from depleted uranium rounds may still be contributing to serious health issues.

Source: Good Free Photos
Destroyed Iraqi civilian and military vehicles on the Highway of Death.


“Increases in cancer, birth defects, and other conditions have been associated with war-related environmental damage and toxins [in Iraq],” say researchers with the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

On the other side of the front lines, burn pits have “exposed soldiers and civilians to dangerous levels of pollutants.” Some service members have even come home from the war with serious respiratory disorders linked to working around these pits.

Prof Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, one of the scientists who signed the letter, said she hopes the Geneva Conventions will soon include crimes against biodiversity.

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
American service members stand near a burn pit.


“The brutal toll of war on the natural world is well documented, destroying the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and driving many species, already under intense pressure, towards extinction,” she told the Guardian.

Such ideals have been discussed for more than 20 years, but the Geneva Conventions are still limited to protections for the wounded and sick armed forces in the field; wounded, sick, and shipwrecked armed forces at sea; prisoners of war; and civilians.

“Work in this field began in the 1990s after the Iraqi military set fire to more than 600 oil wells during a scorched-earth retreat from Kuwait in 1991, but the idea dates back at least to the Vietnam war, when the US military used Agent Orange to clear millions of hectares of forest with dire consequences for human health and wildlife,” the Guardian reports.

The late Polly Higgins, international lawyer, UK based barrister, award-winning author and lead Ecocide law expert, was one of the first to coin the term “ecocide.” She fought for such crimes to be recognize as crimes against humanity until her death in 2019.

Before she passed away, she gave an impassioned plea for global governance and protection against ecocide in her “Freedom Lecture,” seen in the video below.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.
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