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The forgotten victim: Where does nature stand in times of war?

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By Fatima Farooq Murawat

· 17 min read

Destroyed Forest in Ukraine

Destroyed Forest in Ukraine

Source: Dudkin & Harper, 2022

"We are at war with nature and we have to make peace," said the UN Environment Chief Inger Andersen at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal. We are indeed at war with nature and all wars are by default wars against nature as they unavoidably involve the destruction of the natural world. Unfortunately, protecting nature's rights during times of war has not been a priority, despite the inevitable suffering that ensues. The ongoing war in Ukraine is a clear example of this, where the destruction of the environment highlights our fractured relationship with nature. A relationship based on an anthropocentric view that sees nature solely as an object to be exploited for capital gains and human benefit.

This anthropocentric viewpoint is particularly evident in the treatment of nature in times of war and armed conflict. Throughout history, wars have inflicted immense damage on nature, disregarding its rights as an unavoidable casualty. From the large-scale ecocide during the Vietnam War to the destruction of environments in Georgia, Sudan, Iraq, and now Ukraine, nature has been the silent sufferer in all armed conflicts and wars. Shockingly, research indicates that over 80% of major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred directly within biodiversity hotspots. Despite these alarming statistics, the rights of nature have often been ignored during times of war.

The Rights of Nature movement acknowledges the interdependence of the natural world and human well-being and calls for the protection of the environment and its right to thrive without human-caused disruption. Although there is some literature on this topic, most of it is concentrated in the context of Latin America, as evidenced by the works of Richardson & Bustos (2023), Gómez-Betancur (2020), Kauffman & Martin (2017), and Valladares & Boelens (2019). Comparatively, limited attention has been paid to assessing how nature's rights are disregarded in conflicts elsewhere in the world. Thus, it is imperative to examine the repercussions of the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine on the destruction and infringement of the rights of nature.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is also a war against nature

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an infringement of all rights, be they human or non-human. In addition to massive human rights violations and economic destruction, the war has dealt a catastrophic blow to natural and urbanized ecosystems. Since the full-scale war began in February 2022, around 30% of Ukraine’s protected land, stretching over 3 million acres has been devastated by military maneuvers, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of the Environmental Protection and Natural Resources.

The Russian troops are using the carpet-bombing approach, a gradual bombardment approach done to inflict damage in every part of a selected area of land. Moreover, they are employing weapons banned by the UN including cluster munitions, which cause destruction across massive areas. From attacks on nuclear power plants to the shelling of forests to polluting water bodies with phosphorus munitions, the scale of environmental damage poses an existential threat to Ukraine and other European countries.

The possibility of leaked radiation from nuclear plants poses a major environmental and health risk that could have worldwide implications. Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear power for its energy. Russian forces have strategically targeted nuclear plants in Ukraine such as the largest one in Europe, located in Zaporizhzhia, to cut off the electricity supply. This has raised concerns and triggered painful memories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster throughout Europe. A direct hit to the reactors or even the loss of power for cooling could cause a large release of radiation and radioactive wastewater that would have catastrophic ramifications globally.

Additionally, the war is having a severe impact on aggravating the global climate crisis. The war is adding to the global greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously delaying the much-needed global energy transition. According to Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine's Environmental Protection Minister, “Around 33 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses have already been emitted due to the ongoing war and rebuilding the country will escalate these emissions, up to 49 million tonnes.” Both the rise in emissions and delayed energy transition will end up destroying the environment and in doing so, harm humans around the globe.

Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the global food crisis. Given its massive agricultural exports to Europe, Ukraine is termed the “Granary of Europe” (Kornkammer Europas). After the colossal destruction of agricultural lands, the country has experienced a dramatic drop in its food exports, creating a global food security challenge, especially for food-import-dependent countries of Africa. This again proves that the war in Ukraine has implications that go beyond its physical borders.

Wheat plantations burnt after Russian airstrikes in Donetsk oblast

Wheat plantations burnt after Russian airstrikes in Donetsk oblastSource: Watts & editor, 2023

Locally, Ukraine’s forests have suffered the worst brunt of the ongoing war. “Since the war began, more than 1,000 forest fires have started during combat, generating 33 million tons of CO2," states Charlotte von Croÿ, IFAW Program Officer for disaster response in Europe. Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has also been vocal about the impact of war on forests. At the 27th UN Conference on Climate Change, he stressed that the Russian war has devastated 5 million acres of forests in Ukraine. The destruction of Ukraine’s forests is bound to worsen the looming climate and biodiversity crisis.

Conservationists are particularly worried about biodiversity loss in Ukraine. Although Ukraine occupies less than 6% of the area of Europe, it possesses 35% of its biodiversity. The “Green Heart of Europe” is responsible for one out of every three protected species in Europe, including the beloved marbled polecat that has a coin named after it. Russian invasion is also threatening to protect small mammals in Ukraine. For example, rodents are now facing significant population declines and face the threat of local extinction.

Moreover, bird biodiversity, including a significant number of rare and globally vulnerable bird species, is also under threat. Ukraine is home to 15% of Europe’s wild bird population, including 18 globally threatened birds. There is a risk of local extinction of birds due to military actions, changing migratory routes and loss of nesting sites. The White Stork, Black Stork and Little Owl are highly vulnerable to habitat loss, as their nesting sites have been destroyed by bombing.

Black Stork

Black StorkSource: Dudkin & Harper, 2022

The war is also unforgiving to animals in zoos, streets, and even indoor pets. Noise pollution created by gunfire and bombing increases extreme stress and fear among animals in zoos. Moreover, zoos are facing an extreme shortage of funds to provide food to animals. The swelling number of injured stray animals and abandoned pets has put a strain on rescue organizations as they struggle to save these animals.

The environmental toll of the war does not end here. Russia is also suppressing resistance by silencing environmental rights defenders. Environmental activists are being persecuted for their anti-war stance, raising concerns about human rights violations within the country. The case of Arshak Makichyan, a well-known Russian climate activist who recently had his sole citizenship revoked, is a case in point. Moreover, dozens of environmental activists have fled Russia following the invasion of Ukraine due to the fear of being persecuted or silenced.

While the full extent of the environmental destruction cannot be determined until the cessation of hostilities, current estimates place the overall cost at approximately USD 48 billion.

"It is very difficult to quantify the environmental damage caused by the war at this time, especially since the fighting is still ongoing. We know from the Ministry reports that already over 300 million m2 of Ukrainian land has been polluted, which has a very significant impact on animals and people, also long after the war is over,”

explains Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, IFAW Program Director for disaster response in Europe.

Failure of international environmental laws to protect nature

Nature has always been a silent victim of wars but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shed visible light on it. Despite the protection guaranteed by international conventions and treaties, nature is abandoned during wars or sidelined as collateral damage. From the wars in Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq and Georgia to now the war in Ukraine, international environmental laws have failed to protect nature in times of conflict. By launching a full-scale war on Ukraine and its nature, Russia has rendered various environmental laws, including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, meaningless.

Two major international treaties afford protection to the environment from the hazards of war: Protocol I of 1977 additional to the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD Convention). Both Ukraine and Russia are parties to Protocol I, which guarantees the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict. Furthermore, both countries have adopted the ENMOD Convention that protects the environment from artificial modification for military or other hostile purposes in war. However, both these international conventions have failed to prevent environmental destruction in Ukraine. Since the war begin, Ukraine has recorded over 2,200 crimes against nature committed by Russia.

Ukraine is now trying to build a case against Russia for environmental damages caused by the war. Currently, the International Criminal Court does not recognize ecocide defined as the “mass destruction of flora and fauna, poisoning of air or water resources, and also any other actions that may cause an environmental disaster” as an international crime. Moreover, historically, crimes related to environmental damage have rarely been prosecuted under international law. Only in the case of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, environmental damages were persecuted in the international court. However, this was made possible by the decision of the UN Security Council. Given that Russia is part of the Council, it seems highly unlikely that the same would happen for Ukraine. This again proves that our current legal structures are insufficient to protect nature in times of war.

However, there are some positive developments. Recently, the UN’s International Law Commission adopted new PERAC principles, which are a set of 27 principles describing how nature is to be protected before, during and after armed conflicts. Previous international humanitarian rules did not give sufficient protection to the environment, especially in the context of armed conflicts. Although a welcoming step, the new PERAC principles are not legally binding on states. Unlike legally binding international treaties and laws, there is no formal body or process to enforce these principles. They are mere guidelines that countries can voluntarily adopt and implement through national legislation, military training manuals, or outreach with non-state armed groups.

What more can be done?

Will voluntary guidelines be enough to protect nature in times of war? From what history has taught us, it seems highly unlikely that without a legal monitoring and accountability mechanism in place, any sort of war principles will be sufficient to protect nature. The urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis demands that we redesign our social, economic and legal systems. Our current jurisprudence system must be reoriented to recognise nature as a fundamental right-sparing entity. We must shift our focus from human-centric laws to life-centric laws that value non-human lives as well.

Until now, our environmental laws have largely been anthropocentric, viewing nature solely as an object for human benefit. Under the Stockholm Conference of 1972, it was stated that “safeguarding the homo sapiens” is the main goal of environmental laws. In recent times, however, there have been some efforts made at the national level to protect nature as a right-sparing entity. From a strictly theoretical concept, the Rights of Nature have become the basis of constitutional changes in several countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia.

The Rights of Nature movement recognize the interdependence of humans and nature and in doing so puts nature at the center of human wellbeing. It grants nature a legal personhood status and the right to defend itself in a court of law against harms, including environmental degradation. Nature’s rights are also linked with human rights, especially the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Given this interconnectedness, we must transform our dysfunctional environmental laws into a system of jurisprudence that sees and treats nature as a fundamental right-sparing entity.

“We need to change ourselves as humanity and realize the interconnectedness of humans and the natural environment. Nature is not something external to humans rather it is part of our biological makeup. We as humans need to understand that we are part of nature and shift our focus from valuing mainly human lives to also protecting non-human lives on which our existence depends. It is time for a shift in law: Time to put all life central in laws; not just humans,”

explains Jan van de Venis, Ombudsperson for Future Generations, Rights of Nature expert and a UN Harmony with Nature expert.

To ensure that nature does not continue to be an unavoidable war casualty, it is vital to grant nature its rights. It is high time that we recognise the Rights of Nature in our international rights declaration. Just as the human rights declaration is binding for all countries, similar legal rights should be given to nature. This would mean that we include ecocide in the mandate of the International Criminal Court. The Ecocide movement advocates for ecocide – the destruction of the environment - to be treated like genocide and crimes against humanity in the international criminal court.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court was established under a treaty called the Rome Statute to prosecute genocide or crimes against humanity. Early drafts of the Rome Statute included crimes against nature, but they were removed after opposition from powerful states like the US. Instead, environmental destruction was relegated to a wartime offense. Given the looming climate and biodiversity crisis and its interconnectedness with human well-being, it is high time that we include ecocide in our international criminal and justice systems.

“Considering the interdependence of nature and humans, Ecocide and other crimes against nature should be prosecuted in international criminal courts as crimes against humanity. If you harm the environment, you harm people too – current and future generations. Countries, organisations and managers should not just be punished for crimes against humans but also for harming the environment,” says Venis

In addition, international war guidelines need to be mainstreamed into domestic laws, legislative processes and strategies, including in military training. Furthermore, new international treaties to safeguard the environment during armed conflict are urgently required that recognise that environmental security is as important as human security. Eco-centric constitutional moves are needed that recognise nature’s rights and ensure that its exploitation, destruction and extractivism are not gone unpunished.

 “The environmental toll of the war in Ukraine shows that in an extreme situation, we value nature the least. Given that the climate and biodiversity crises are only going to get worse, the number of conflicts is bound to increase. This is why it is important to identify and take appropriate measures now to ensure the protection of nature in extreme conflicts in the future. The war in Ukraine gives us an opportunity to mend our broken relationship with nature and recognise the rights of nature before it is too late,”

said Alex Putzer, a Researcher in the Rights of Urban Nature and a UN Harmony with Nature Expert.

Recognizing nature as a victim of war and granting “Rights to Nature” will transform our understandings of violence, and hence, approaches to constructing peace. Not only should the Rights of Nature be at the core of human rights law but they should also be made a central part of the peace-building process. It is high time we reorient ourselves from an exploitive and self-destructive relationship with nature to one that honours the deep interrelationships of all life. It is imperative that we recognize the pressing need to safeguard and conserve the natural world, particularly during times of war and conflict. We must accept our responsibility to reconcile with nature and take decisive measures to ensure its survival, which will ultimately benefit all of us.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


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About the author

Fatima Farooq Murawat is Policy Analyst at Broadpeak, a Swiss-based International Advisory company specialised in Impact Finance. Fatima is dedicated to researching the most pressing issues of our time including climate change, energy transition and sustainable development. She has previously worked at the Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies, the National University of Science and Technology and the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change in Pakistan.

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