The Encyclopedia is a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights launched on 2 December 2013. The Enyclopedia aims to provide accurate, up-to-date information on weapons, the effects of their use, and their regulation under public international law, in a format that is accessible to non-specialists.+ Find out more
There is growing recognition by states, militaries and international organisations of the environmental and health impacts of conflict and military activities. In the course of consultations on the International Law Commission's (ILC) work on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts, some states 'suggested that specific weapons and the effects of such weapons on the environment should be addressed', and 'toxic remnants of war were highlighted as important aspects of the topic'.Third Report on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts, Submitted by Marie G. Jacobsson, Special Rapporteur, UN doc. A/CN.4/700, 3 June 2016, §41. The Draft Principles on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts (PERAC), provisionally adopted by the Drafting Committee of the ILC include a reference to 'toxic and hazardous remnants of war'. According to Draft Principle 16 on 'Remnants of war'
1. After an armed conflict, parties to the conflict shall seek to remove or render harmless toxic and hazardous remnants of war under their jurisdiction or control that are causing or risk causing damage to the environment. Such measures shall be taken subject to the applicable rules of international law.
2. The parties shall also endeavour to reach agreement, among themselves and, where appropriate, with other States and with international organizations, on technical and material assistance, including, in appropriate circumstances, the undertaking of joint operations to remove or render harmless such toxic and hazardous remnants of war.
3. Paragraphs 1 and 2 are without prejudice to any rights or obligations under international law to clear, remove, destroy or maintain minefields, mined areas, mines, booby-traps, explosive ordnance and other devices.Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts, Text of the draft principles provisionally adopted during the present session by the Drafting Committee, UN doc. A/CN.4/L.876, 3 August 2016.
In its report, the Drafting Committee stressed that these obligations are incumbent on all 'parties to the conflict', including, therefore, non-state armed groups.
A commentary to the Draft Principles is expected to clarify the meaning of the phrase 'toxic and hazardous remnants of war'. The civil society initiative, Toxic Remnants of War Network, understands TRW broadly as 'any toxic or radiological substance resulting from military activities that forms a hazard to humans and ecosystems’. Sources of TRW include explosives, propellants, obscurants (such as white phosphorus) and metals (such as depleted uranium) used in munitions. But TRW can also result from attacks on industrial infrastructure, or indirectly, from 'sequences of events or conditions connected to conflict or instability', such as derelict industrial sites left unsecured and which are subsequently looted, exposing people to highly toxic substances.A. Kellay, Pollution Politics: Power, Accountability and Toxic Remnants of War, Toxic Remnants of War Project, 2014.
Whereas concern about TRW in the ILC's Draft Principles appears limited to damage or risk of damage to the environment,D. Weir, 'UN lawyers present revised post-conflict environmental protection principles',Toxic Remnants of Ware Network, 31 August 2016. others have highlighted that TRW are a challenge to the protection of civilians, stressing the links between health and the natural environment. For instance, in October 2013, Costa Rica delivered a statement to the United Nations General Assembly, noting that
toxic remnants of war present many risks to civilians, both during and after conflict. There are also few obligations on States to assess the toxicity and environmental behavior of the materials used in weapons, nor to monitor their human health impact or environmental behavior after use. Therefore, Costa Rica finds it crucial that more attention is paid to the links between civilian health, environmental harm and sustainable development. ...The international community needs to work together to resolve the problems associated with the toxic remnants of war. We reiterate our view that environmental considerations are of great importance in efforts to improve the protection of civilians.‘Conventional Weapons’, Statement delivered by Maritza Chan, Minister Counselor, Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations, at the First Committee of the General Assembly 68th session of the UN General Assembly, New York, 18 October 2013.
Likewise, in its 2011 report to the the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) pointed to the long-term health and environmental consequences of chemicals and pollutants resulting from military operations:ICRC, Strengthening legal protection for victims of armed conflicts, Report prepared for the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Doc. 31IC/11/5.1.1 3, Geneva, October 2011, 18.
damage to the environment due to armed conflicts may be extensive, largely exceeding the actual combat zone. It may also have long-term consequences that continue after the hostilities end. For instance, a considerable amount of environmental damage may emanate from chemicals and other pollutants leaking into the soil and groundwater as a result of military operations. These chemicals and pollutants can come from the destruction of power plants, chemical plants and other industrial installations but also from the rubble left by attacks against other types of military objectives. In some situations, hazardous substances have been abandoned by parties to armed conflict when leaving combat zones. For example, in Astana, a small village in Afghanistan, land on which the inhabitants grazed livestock was polluted for years by hazardous chemicals used to fire missiles, exposing the local population to high risks.UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Ground Contamination Assessment Report, Military Waste Storage Site, Astana, Afghanistan, December 2006. As a result, the civilian population no longer has safe access to resources that are indispensable to its survival. People may also suffer serious health effects. Extensive thought must therefore be given to possible mechanisms and procedures for addressing the immediate and long-term consequences of environmental damage.UNEP, Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict: An Inventory and Analysis of International Law, November 2009, 53.
According to a study on the prevalence of birth defects in the Gaza Strip from 1997 to 2010, the use of air-delivered weaponry on the Gaza Strip which was first documented in 2001, 'has been a major environmental stress'. The findings of the study, in agreement with results obtained with other methods, reinforce the 'concern that toxic remnants of war could be a source of long-term effects on reproductive health.' N. Awny et al., 'Prevalence of birth defects in the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinian territory, from 1997 to 2010: a pedigree analysis', The Lancet, vol. 382, 5 December 2013. See also, W. Zwijnenburg, and K.te Pas, Amidst the Debris...: A desktop study on the environmental and public health impact of Syria’s conflict, PAX, 2015; M. Ghalaieny,Toxic Harm: Humanitarian and Environmental Concerns from Military-Origin Contamination, Discussion Paper, February 2013.
A 2016 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes to the Human Rights Council examined the impact of hazardous substances and wastes on the rights of the child. According to the report, '[c]hildren everywhere are suffering from the impacts of toxics and pollution.'Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, UN doc. A/HRC/33/41, 2 Aug 2016, §2.
The Special Rapporteur noted that
Toxic remnants of war inflict pain and suffering on communities long after the conflicts have concluded. In Iraq, independent studies suggest that birth defects have increased dramatically among children in conflict areas, who in many cases do not have access to medical care and treatment. Unexploded munitions, landmines, chemical weapons, pesticides, and other hazardous remnants of war and conflict persist world-wide.Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, UN doc. A/HRC/33/41, 2 Aug 2016, §16.
According to the report, affected children have no access to an effective remedy, as '[e]ven unquestionably toxic sites of contamination' including 'toxic remnants of war, escape remediation and accountability that could prevent future human rights violations'.Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, UN doc. A/HRC/33/41, 2 Aug 2016, §12.
To limit childhood exposure to toxics and protect the rights of the child from toxic chemicals, the Special Rapporteur recommended that states
Work with relevant national and international organizations on monitoring and identification systems for hazardous remnants of armed conflict. Governments must provide an effective remedy for hazardous remnants of conflict and other military activities, including funding for full remediation, comprehensive medical treatment and compensation for individuals experiencing the effects of exposure to these materials.Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, UN doc. A/HRC/33/41, 2 Aug 2016, §110(k).
Last updated on: 15 September 2016