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Crimes against the environment: the silent victim of warfare

The Conversation

Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University

Acts perpetrated during the course of warfare have, through the ages, led to significant environmental destruction. These have included situations in which the natural environment has intentionally been targeted as a “victim”, or has been manipulated to serve as a “weapon”.

On Friday the United Nations marked the “International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict”.

Throughout history the environment has been a silent victim of human conflict. The problem is ongoing. It is time we properly recognised crimes against the environment and made those responsible for such crimes fully accountable.

Scorched earth tactics

In the 5th century BC, the retreating Scythians poisoned water wells in an effort to slow the advancing Persian army. Roman troops razed the city of Carthage in 146 BC, and poisoned the surrounding soil with salt to prevent its future fertilisation. The American Civil War in the 19th century saw the widespread implementation of “scorched earth” policies.

In August 1945, we witnessed the destructive capability of weapons technology, when the United States detonated atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in massive loss of life and environmental destruction.

During the Vietnam War, the United States implemented Operation Ranch Hand to devastating effect to destroy vegetation used by the enemy for cover and sustenance, through the use of chemicals such as Agent Orange. Attempts were also made to deliberately modify the environment to create floods along vital supply routes utilised by the North Vietnamese forces.

More recently still, who can forget the haunting images of more than 700 burning Kuwaiti oil well heads, which had been deliberately ignited by retreating Iraqi forces during the Gulf War in 1991 – a scene that was likened to Dante’s Inferno.

Over the following ten years, the Saddam regime built barriers and levees to drain the al-Hawizeh and al-Hammar marshes in southern Iraq, an area some believe is the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. This effectively destroyed the livelihood of the 500,000 Marsh Arabs who had inhabited the area of this unique ecosystem.

Actions such as these demonstrate how the deliberate despoliation of the environment can have catastrophic effects, not only on human populations, but also in ecological terms. For example, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as having the potential to kill many thousands of people in a single attack, have effects that may persist in the environment, in some cases indefinitely.

The devastating effects of environmental warfare can continue long after the conflict is resolved, jeopardising or destroying the lives and livelihoods of those reliant on the natural environment.

Resource wars

Moreover, access to natural resources – or the lack of access – can itself be the trigger for conflict.

Approximately five million people were killed during the 1990s in armed conflicts relating to the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that, over the last 60 years, at least 40% of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources.

Recent conflicts in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Angola were not only fought over natural resources, but the exploitation of those resources in turn funded the combating parties to acquire weapons. This has given rise to the phenomena of “conflict resources ”, where natural resources commercialise and prolong conflict. It becomes a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.

Defending the environment

Environmental degradation and exploitation can thus be both a cause and a consequence of armed conflict. The International Court of Justice has clearly recognised that damage to its environment may constitute an “essential interest” of a state. Such recognition will only increase as the world gains further insights into the broader state of the global environment, including the disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite all of the evidence, however, deliberate environmental destruction during warfare is still largely regarded, as rape once was, as an unfortunate consequence of war.

The existing rules under international humanitarian law, international environmental law and international criminal law purporting to limit deliberate environmental destruction have largely been ineffective and inappropriate. The impact of environmental destruction has paled when measured against perceived military advantages. The United Nations International Law Commission is currently looking at this issue in an attempt to establish the relevant applicable principles.

It is, of course, true that war and armed conflict are inherently destructive of the environment. But that is no reason to allow leaders to deliberately or recklessly target the environment in order to achieve their military goals. Deliberate destruction is no longer acceptable, particularly given the ongoing development of weapons capable of widespread and significant damage.

There is therefore much more that should be done. Just as international law has made great strides forward by classifying rape during armed conflict as a war crime, a crime against humanity, or even genocide in certain circumstances, we should recognise that intentional environmental destruction can also constitute an international crime. Proper modes of accountability should be incorporated into the mechanisms of international criminal justice.

“Crimes against the environment” should therefore be incorporated as a separate crime within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, in order to better protect our most cherished assets for future generations.

Steven Freeland is the author of Addressing the Intentional Destruction of the Environment during Warfare under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court published in 2015.

The ConversationSteven Freeland, Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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From poetry, to exposing Joe Stalin’s crimes



15 July 1917 – 3 August 2015

 A poet and science-fiction buff, Robert Con­quest turned to the study of the Soviet Uni­on in the mid-1950s out of dissatisfaction with the quality of analysis he saw at the British Foreign Office. He worked there after the Second World War in the Information Re­search Department, a semi-secret office re­sponsible for combating Soviet propaganda.


     “The ambassadors varied between people who were interested in politics and people who were interested in music,” he said in 2003. “I wanted to study the evolutions at the top in Soviet Russia.”

     Conquest was known as a poet before he began writing history. With Kingsley Amis, whom he met in 1952 when Amis was writing Lucky Jim, he edited volumes of the poetry anthology New Lines, which showcased work by Movement poets of the 1950s.

     However, his landmark studies of the Stalinist purges and the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s documented the horrors perpet­rated by the Soviet ré­gime against its own citizens. As one of the Movement poets (a group that included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Thorn Gunn), Conquest em­barked on a research fellowship at the Lon­don School of Economics and produced Power and Politics in the USSR (1960), a book that established him as a leading Kremlinologist.

     Eight years later, during the Prague Spring, he published The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, a chronicle of Stalin’s merciless campaign against political op­ponents, intellectuals, military of­ficers — any­one who could be branded an “enemy of the people”.

     For the first time, facts and incidents scattered in myriad sources were gathered in a gripping narrative. Its effect would not be matched until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973.

     The scope of Stalin’s purges was laid out: 7 million people arrested in the peak years, 1937 and 1938; 1 million executed; 2 million dead in the concentration camps. Conquest estimated the death toll for the entire Stalin era at no fewer than 20 million.

     “His historical intuition was astonishing,” said Norman Naimark, a professor of East­ern European history at Stanford Uni­versity. “He saw things clearly without hav­ing access to archives or internal informa­tion from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclu­sions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

     George Robert Acworth Conquest, who has died of pneumonia aged 98, was born in Worcestershire, England. His father lived on a small independent income, and throughout Conquest’s childhood the family shifted from one boarding-house to another and spent long periods in France: in Brittany and Provence. He attended Winchester Col­lege in England and, after studying for a year at the University of Grenoble in France and travelling through Bulgaria, enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied politics, economics and philosophy and joined the Communist Party.

     Leaving Oxford without a degree, he joined the Oxford[shire] and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry when World War II began in 1939. After studying Bulgarian, he served as an intelligence officer in Bulgaria, where he remained after the war as the press officer at the British Embassy in Sofia.

     In 1942 he married Joan Watkins, the first of his four wives. In Bulgaria he began a relationship with Tatiana Mihailova, whom he helped escape to Britain after the Soviet takeover of Bulgaria and married. She was later found to have schizophrenia, and they divorced.

     In addition to his fourth wife, he is survived by sons from his first marriage, John and Richard; a stepdaughter, Helen Beasley; and five grandchildren.

New York Times

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