A factory and a store burning after being bombarded in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on March 6, 2022 (Flickr).
Ukraine is on the verge of an ecological tragedy. The destruction of industrial facilities and contamination from heavy weaponry means that if Ukrainians are able to return to their homeland, they might not have much to return to. This ecological damage will remain long after the bombs stop dropping, the cities stop smoking, and the public eye moves on to the next crisis.
War has always caused ecological damage. However, the heavy presence of nuclear technology in the Russia-Ukraine war has brought newfound attention to the idea of wartime environmental damage. How can we protect the environment, just as we protect people, during times of humanitarian crisis and conflict?
It is high time that the international community develops a framework of accountability for those who cause extreme degradation to the environment during wartime. With the help of the growing environmental protection movement, we must create an international normative prohibition of ecocide, similar to the norm of humanitarian prevention and of the nuclear taboo. This is how we can create lasting change in protecting the environment during war.
An Overview of the Damage
Nuclear technology has played a key role in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict since its inception. Russian troops took over the Chernobyl facility on the first day of the invasion. Satellite images from the European Space Agency show that there are several fires in the surrounding area, caused by missiles that have emitted radioactive material to enter the atmosphere. Ukraine warned that if electric power supplying the plant’s cooling system ceased to function, this could create a radioactive cloud that could cover the whole of Europe. The State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management called this “nuclear terrorism” in a Facebook post, stating the clear risks of accidents.
On the other side of the country, in a region called Zaporizhzhya, Russian forces deliberately fired on a nuclear power plant, causing a large fire. Before that, the IAEA reported damage to radioactive waste disposal facilities in Kyiv and Karkiv. The IAEA has called the likelihood of a nuclear disaster low. However, it is important to acknowledge that this is the first war fought in a true nuclear state, where a majority of the electricity comes from nuclear plants. The infrastructure has not been tested to withstand artillery fire or bombings. And, as employees of these nuclear plants continue to work in the warzone, the likelihood of mistakes under stress climbs.
Nuclear disaster is just one of many threats. There are also major threats to the water supply and air quality. Fighting that occurs in urban areas like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol comes in contact with Ukraine’s many industrial facilities and waste repositories. These facilities, when hit by fire from Russian planes or artillery, can cause pollutants and toxic material to leak into the ground, seeping into the water supply. An article in Wired pointed out that years of shelling in Donbas have caused toxic leaks from abandoned industrial facilities and mines. The mines are now flooding, and contaminated water is now being pumped from the ground. Increased military activity, shelling, fires, and the destruction of industrial storage facilities release C02 and toxic chemicals into the air.
While much of the ecological damage in Ukraine is an externality of intense fighting, Russian troops have also deliberately targeted gas pipelines, water infrastructure, and local crops and wildlife. Policymakers and experts looking to reverse these actions are looking to gather more information, but unfortunately, real-time data on Ukraine’s ecological health is unavailable. However, the Environmental Peacebuilding Association wrote that the environmental impacts of the war will indeed be long-term and far-reaching, affecting the ability of the region to produce food and water and causing permanent pollution.
Where do we go from here?
Intentional or knowing ecological damage is not a new concept. However, as climate change progresses, the urgency to protect the environment at an international and legal level grows. Humans have the potential to greatly accelerate climate change and cause widespread famine and disease. Given that Ukraine is a heavily industrialized area with ample nuclear material in play, we must tackle this problem as an international community now.
International law is the ideal starting point to create a worldwide norm to protect the environment in times of war. Nearly a decade ago, the UN’s International Law Commission (ILC) took up a project entitled “Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts,” or PERAC. The project has received little attention, but interest has been piqued due to the conflict in Ukraine. The group is set to conclude on the issue in the fall of 2022.
Pursuing PERAC has clear merits: it provides international legitimacy to the cause of protecting the environment during wartime. Today’s international community upholds the rights of civilians in conflict, works to protect refugees, and prosecutes war criminals successfully. If there were to be a legal framework for the earth, it could make an impact.
Furthermore, the growing environmental protection movement will play a key role in fostering a normative prohibition against ecocide. In February, 108 organizations from across the world highlighted the environmental risks posed by the war in Ukraine during the UN Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi. Days before, thousands of individuals from hundreds of NGOs wrote an open letter by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, calling on the international community to get involved. A growing number of activists are in favor of prosecuting environmental degradation in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the same process of prosecuting war crimes. Some organizations, like the Stop Ecocide Campaign, have called for a reform to the ICC’s statute to explicitly include environmental crimes. It is important to note that grassroots support from issue-specific organizations and individuals are particularly integral in strengthening the potency of international laws and norms. For example, one of the reasons why the non-proliferation treaties of the 20th century were so successful was because of the nuclear taboo and the grassroots anti-nuclear support they received.
Can International Law Do the Job?
It is easy to be skeptical about the effectiveness of the international justice system and international law. One could easily make the argument that while war crimes are illegal, most of today’s war criminals never see a day in court or behind bars. While it is a “war crime” to kill civilians, civilians are killed in Ukraine and around the world every day. What is the use of making it a crime to hurt the earth too?
Depressingly, there are few alternatives to the international law path. There is simply no legal accountability in war, mainly because it is savage and cruel in nature but also because it–by definition–violates state boundaries and, by extent, sovereignty and enforcement.
While there is plenty of skepticism about the effectiveness of international law, pessimists still acknowledge that international law has a social kind of power. When a country violates international law, they fear less about punishment and more about the consequences of ostracization from the international community. Constructivist political scientists like Nina Tannenwald and Martha Finnemore wrote that norms and social pressure are major factors in whether states choose to adhere to international measures. A social taboo against environmental destruction and the use of artillery amid fragile nuclear systems–combined with plenty of grassroots support– could lock in any de-facto prohibition on ecocide. For this reason, international law can be an effective measure.
“International humanitarian law is not particularly effective in protecting civilians in conflict, and the environment is of a lower order of priority. But along with recently updated Red Cross guidelines, if you start to embed more environmental awareness and understanding within the militaries, [among] their lawyers, then the environment is going to feature more heavily on the decisions that they make,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) in an interview with Open Democracy.
The United Nations should work to criminalize ecocide, the term for environmental harm during wartime, through the PERAC framework. While it may not directly prevent ongoing destruction in Ukraine, it will set a precedent for future conflicts and create a path toward creating consequences for those who harm the environment in war.
Change as a result of necessity.
Warfare is often followed by a healing process. Usually, this process is dedicated to humankind and its creations. We think of the destruction of homes and cities, and the loss of precious artifacts and heirlooms. The rebuilding process is deliberate and careful. We also think about mental healing. Societies undergo trauma, and we recognize the need to heal our minds and our communities over time. The earth needs the same thing. In order to effectively address ecocide, we must come together as an international community–in the same way that we do when we rebuild other damages after the war.
As a result of the war in Ukraine, European countries and governments around the world are opening their arms and borders to refugees. We are seeing unprecedented generosity toward the families and individuals affected by the conflict.
This has drawn criticism among those who point out that many non-European refugees are not treated so kindly. Indeed, there has been a stark change in the way that refugees have been treated in this conflict. While it’s important to point out the double standard, the solution is not to treat the Ukrainian refugees worse in order to achieve justice—the answer is to treat all refugees like we saw we can treat the ones from Ukraine. We know it’s possible, and with that knowledge, we can create a new standard. We need a new standard for environmental protection, too.
Right now, we may be living through a low point in global environmental cooperation. We cannot afford to. Like other aspects of the war, we must use the scale and scope of this tragedy to push the world toward new standards of justice.