During his trip to Italy in 1859, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessed the barbaric battle between French and Austrian soldiers in the northern Italian town of Solferino, which left thousands of victims. Dunant was deeply marked by the human suffering of the battle he recounted in his memoirs, A memory of Solferino, and championed the idea of an international treaty between states that would primarily establish protections for those not taking part in the war and those no longer taking part in the war.
In other words, Dunant sought to put limits on the war itself. Years later, after the end of World War II, the Geneva Conventions were adopted on August 12, 1949 to regulate the conduct of war and limit its effects.
This year, on their 73rd anniversary, the four Geneva Conventions have been universally ratified, making them globally accepted and applicable.
However, the last 73 years have also seen conventional warfare and its typical effects on the territory in which it takes place – which had inspired the origins of the conventions – undergo radical changes. Among these effects is environmental degradation. The environment is often one of the casualties of modern wars. Less visible, its prevention tends not to be a priority for belligerents.
The effects of conflict on the environment can manifest directly in three contexts: first, attacks during conflict on agricultural facilities, extractive mines, chemical facilities, oil facilities, sanitation and waste management infrastructure and large industrial facilities cause health risks to human populations and serious damage in the form of water and soil contamination, with immediate and long-term consequences for human health and ecosystems. Such attacks also force large volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Second, conflict directly threatens biodiversity which, in turn, affects the well-being or, even worse, the survival of local communities. Third, conflict accelerates the exploitation of natural resources to sustain war economies.
In addition to the direct effects, conflicts also indirectly cause environmental degradation. Important indirect effects include the breakdown of governance and the erosion of institutional capacity for environmental management.
Moreover, when local people are forced to abandon conflict areas, this leads to competition for natural resources and the unsustainable exploitation of other areas, putting the environment under even greater pressure. These indirect effects caused by war can also potentially trigger new internal conflicts.
International humanitarian law – the body of international law that regulates the conduct of war – aims to protect the natural environment during war. The concept of “natural environment” is at the heart of IHL.
The notion of natural environment is understood in the broadest possible sense and includes everything that exists or occurs naturally and is not created by man, such as the general hydrosphere, biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere. (including fauna, flora, oceans and other bodies of water, soil and rocks).
In addition, the natural environment includes natural elements that are or are not the product of human intervention, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas, drinking water and livestock. It is particularly important that this interpretation does not refer exclusively to inanimate organisms and objects taken in isolation. On the contrary, “natural environment” also refers to the system of inextricable relationships between living organisms and their inanimate surroundings.
On their 73rd anniversary, the Geneva Conventions – as well as IHL in general – must be understood and reiterated in light of modern warfare and its consequences, in particular the impacts of war on the natural environment .
IHL prescribes two types of protection of the natural environment. The first type of protection prohibits the use of means and methods of warfare that are intended or likely to cause long-term, widespread and severe damage to the natural environment.
Under the second type of protection, which is defined in the conventions, the rules that otherwise protect civilian objects also extend to the natural environment. In addition, the general principles governing the conduct of hostilities, that’s to say, distinction, proportionality and precaution, are also applicable to the protection of the natural environment. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – co-founded by Henry Dunant – has published and disseminated its recently revised Guidelines for the Protection of the Natural Environment in Situations of Armed Conflict.
The revised guidelines, which have been prepared to serve as a reference tool for participants in war to protect the natural environment, represent a selection of existing IHL rules, including customary IHL, and contain the ICRC’s interpretation About them.
Protecting and preserving the natural environment in today’s conflict-ridden world is not optional. Respect for the Geneva Conventions and IHL in general is imperative to protect the natural environment. Failure to do so will make environmental disasters more likely.
The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer and consultant