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Environmental Damage Is a War Crime, Scientists Say

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Two dozen prominent scientists from around the world have asked the UN to make environmental damage in conflict zones a war crime. The scientists published their open letter in the journal Nature.


The letter, titled "Stop Military Conflicts from Trashing the Environment," asks the United Nations' International Law Commission to adopt a Fifth Geneva Convention when it meets later this month. The UN group is scheduled to hold a meeting with the aim of building on the 28 principles it has already drafted to protect the environment and lands sacred to indigenous people, according to The Guardian.

Damage to protected areas during a military skirmish should be considered a war crime on par with violations of human rights, the scientists say. If the UN adopts their suggestions, the principles would include measures to hold governments accountable for the damage done by their militaries, as well as legislation to curb the international arms trade.

"We call on governments to incorporate explicit safeguards for biodiversity, and to use the commission's recommendations to finally deliver a Fifth Geneva Convention to uphold environmental protection during such confrontations," the letter reads.

Currently, the four existing Geneva Conventions and their three additional protocols are globally recognized standards enshrined into international law. It dictates humane treatment for wounded troops in the field, soldiers shipwrecked at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians during armed conflicts. Violating the treaties amounts to a war crime, as Common Dreams reported.

"Despite calls for a fifth convention two decades ago, military conflict continues to destroy megafauna, push species to extinction, and poison water resources," the letter reads. "The uncontrolled circulation of arms exacerbates the situation, for instance by driving unsustainable hunting of wildlife."

Sarah M. Durant of the Zoological Society of London and José C. Brito of the University of Porto in Portugal drafted the letter. The 22 other signatories, mostly from Africa and Europe, are affiliated with organizations and institutions in Egypt, France, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Libya, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the United States.

"The brutal toll of war on the natural world is well documented, destroying the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and driving many species, already under intense pressure, towards extinction," said Durant, as the The Guardian reported. "We hope governments around the world will enshrine these protections into international law. This would not only help safeguard threatened species, but would also support rural communities, both during and post-conflict, whose livelihoods are long-term casualties of environmental destruction."

The idea for adding environmental protections to the Geneva Convention first arose during the Vietnam war when the U.S. military used massive amounts of Agent Orange to clear millions of acres of forests which had long term adverse consequences on human health, wildlife populations and soil quality. Work on the idea picked up in earnest in the early 90s when Iraq burned Kuwaiti oil wells and the U.S. fired off bombs and missiles with depleted uranium, which poisoned Iraqi soil and water, as Common Dreams reported.

The effects of conflict have been proven recently in the Sahara-Sahel region, where cheetahs, gazelles and other species have suffered rapid population loss due to the spread of guns following Libya's civil war. Conflicts in Mali and Sudan have correlated with an uptick in elephant killings, as The Guardian reported.

"The impacts of armed conflict are causing additional pressure to imperiled wildlife from the Middle East and north Africa," said Brito to the Guardian. "Global commitment is needed to avoid the likely extinction of emblematic desert fauna over the next decade."

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