It’s time to seek justice for environmental war crimes | Opinion

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War is terrifying for people, communities and nations. The abuse they are suffering requires our immediate attention, compassion and action. While some violations are obvious and there are mechanisms and institutions to investigate and provide redress, others are less obvious. An example of the latter is environmental war crimes.

We are just beginning to understand the full extent of the impact of war on our air, water, and natural environment. About soil and agriculture. On energy and water infrastructure. And ultimately it’s about public health and safety. The challenge is that many of them are not easily visible and are not yet well studied. The number of casualties from this less visible aspect of war may be much higher than imagined.

Where there are collapsed buildings, deadly asbestos and silica dust can be thrown into the air. Where there are landmines, unexploded ordnance, or damaged industrial sites, leaks of heavy metals and other powerful pollutants can occur, some of which persist for generations. Food security is compromised when lakes and agricultural land are contaminated.

Although today’s international law already includes tools for prosecuting war crimes that cause disproportionate harm to the environment, such crimes are rarely prosecuted in local courts or international tribunals. Reparations for this harm are also too limited as claims in international tribunals face evidentiary obstacles.

There are some positive signs that this situation may change. The United Nations General Assembly drew attention to this issue in its important 2022 resolution on environmental protection in the context of armed conflict, pointing to the responsibility of States to make full reparations for environmental damage caused by illegal acts in war. On March 1, the United Nations Environment Assembly passed a consensus resolution calling for improved data collection on environmental damage caused by armed conflict.

Karim Khan, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, also recently announced that his office is developing a comprehensive policy against environmental crimes and has a firm commitment to advancing accountability for these crimes.

The real challenge is tracking environmental damage even while conflict is ongoing. But it is essential to protect public health and take emergency measures to minimize damage, such as stopping the active leakage of deadly pollutants into rivers and farmland. Documenting damage is necessary in order to ensure that full reparations are ultimately paid, as is necessary in cases caused by unlawful acts of war, and to hold individual perpetrators accountable. It is also important.

An important contribution in this field has come from Ukraine.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is having a devastating impact on the natural environment. Ukraine is a country with great biodiversity and important natural reserves, but the war has destroyed many areas. Soils and waterways are contaminated with chemicals, and farmland, forests, and green spaces are destroyed by shelling, fires, and floods.

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam a year ago, presumed to have been a deliberate act by occupying Russian forces, flooded villages and farmland and caused widespread ecological damage as far as the Black Sea.

In addition, a third of Ukraine’s territory is now suspected of being contaminated with landmines or unexploded ordnance, more than any other country in the world, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

We have joined efforts to draw global attention to these environmental issues by joining Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s bold initiative.

The President has created a High-Level Working Group on the Environmental Impact of the War in Ukraine, and we are pleased to be a member of it, and we are committed to making environmental security a core element of the President’s proposed peace formula as a framework for ending the war. I’ve incorporated it. .

The working group recently published extensive recommendations in an “Environmental Compact” (PDF) that sets out three priorities.

First, we need to leverage modern technology and establish clear guidance for documenting environmental damage. Establishing such standards in cooperation with international partners would help Ukraine guide how to document environmental damage in any conflict.

Second, we must have this data and evidence to ensure criminal liability and full compensation. Significant work is already underway at national and international levels, but there is scope to scale it up.

The National Strategy for Environmental Justice, currently being developed by the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, is a step in the right direction. At the international level, more attention should be paid to these crimes in foreign courts, including in cases to which universal jurisdiction applies.

Investigators and prosecutors should adopt a victim-centered approach to understanding environmental harm and necessary remedies. Human rights investigations in Ukraine need to pay special attention to environmental damage and risks to public health when assessing rights violations.

Finally, the Working Group notes that a sustainable recovery that incorporates climate and environmentally friendly development strategies is essential. Efforts to apply these principles must begin now, as reconstruction has already begun in some parts of Ukraine.

Green justice and green restoration in Ukraine will benefit all conflict-affected countries around the world. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the Kremlin put the international legal order at risk. That action is a clear violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. The future of this international order, and any hope of justice for such flagrant violations, will depend on how the world continues to respond to this invasion, which includes horrific and unjustified attacks on the environment.

We all know that environmental threats do not stop at national borders. The risk of a major nuclear radiological disaster looming over Ukraine due to Russia’s occupation of Europe’s largest Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a worrying example of a regional threat. Another is the impact of the war on the Black Sea. Environmental damage is having a devastating impact on marine life in the Black Sea, affecting all countries bordering this important body of water.

As the world wakes up to the scale of environmental crimes committed in conflicts, we must work to ensure accountability, addressing both individual crimes and the responsibility of perpetrator states to repair the damage.

Justice will be served in Ukraine. And justice should be equally available in all conflicts where force exceeds agreed legal limits. Let’s work together to create a greener, more just and more peaceful future for countries currently suffering from such attacks.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.

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