Conflicts and the environment

Fire in the field near the city of Kyiv, Ukraine Fire in the field near the city of Kyiv, Ukraine © Phoo by rootstocks on iStock

How do conflicts affect the environment?

Conflicts can have serious repercussions for the environment due to the employment of specific means of warfare which damage the ecosystems and cause negative effects to the civilian population. The impact of conflicts on the environment can be direct, namely linked to the weapons employed, or indirect, therefore, as a consequence of the social, political, and economic instability that they cause. Some weapons, such as nuclear weapons, may leave Toxic Remnants of War (TRW), defined as “toxic or radiological substance[s] resulting from military activities that form a hazard to humans or ecosystems” which are of particular concern to humanitarian disarmament.


How is it affecting civilians?

Some weapons, such as nuclear and incendiary weapons can produce devastating, long-term environmental damage, causing mass migrations and endangering the health and wellbeing of civilians. The use of indiscriminate weapons can cause devastating damage to the environment such as deforestation, groundwater pollution and excessive air emissions, forcing civilians to live in precarious conditions, suffering from lack of food and water and putting their health at risk.


What is the international community doing about it?

Today, a growing number of environmental, human rights, and disarmament organizations are calling onto States and international organizations to adopt stricter laws and monitoring mechanisms to increase environmental protection. The latter falls within the scope of International Humanitarian Law, which includes various provisions limiting the devastating impact of conflict on the environment. Articles 35 and 55 of the Protocol I of 1977 additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 lay down basic rules for the conduct of conflict, prohibiting the employment of means of warfare that are intended or expected to cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the environment. A more recent step of the international community towards environmental protection was marked with the adoption, by the United Nations International Law Commission in 2019, of 28 draft legal principles on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict (PERAC) which lay out measures aimed at preventing or remediating to conflict-caused environmental damages.




Author: Carla Leonetti

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