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Scientists: Environmental Destruction Should be a War Crime

Ben Dolbear examines the calls by scientists to extend the Geneva Convention to protect wildlife and nature. | Nature and Environmental

Photo by Bruno Martins - Natural History Museum

An open letter by 24 leading scientists has called for an extension to the Geneva Convention to make damage to environmental nature reserves in areas of conflict a war crime.

Professor Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London has contributed to the letter, writing in the Nature journal that despite calls for a fifth convention more than two decades ago by environmental activists, consequences of human military conflict continue to see the destruction of megafauna, or large animals, the extinction of entire species, and the poisoning of water resources.

The Need for Change

The extended Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949, includes four conventions to protect those vulnerable during times of war, which includes protections for wounded and sick soldiers on land, wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians, including those in occupied territory.

At present, the United Nations international law commission has adopted twenty-eight measures to preserve nature in regions of conflict, but the signatories of this new letter argue that they do not go far enough.

The environment is undoubtedly one of the most frequent and most heavily affected victims of war, and calls for greater protection of nature stem back to the Vietnam War of the second half of the twentieth century during which the United States military used over twenty million gallons of Agent Orange, a deadly herbicide and defoliant chemical, to destroy ancient rainforests, wetlands, croplands, and vegetation.

Today, pollution from the remnants of the toxic chemical continues to have deadly consequences for the Vietnamese environment.

The Scientific Demands

José Brito, an academic from the University of Porto, Portugal, added to the letter:

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

It is the aim of the letter for global bodies to enact internationally recognised protections of natural environments particularly susceptible to damage during war so that vulnerable and rural communities, as well as animal species, are better shielded from the human brutality that threatens their existence.

It is hoped that a fifth treaty of the Geneva Convention would provide legal instruments for 'site-based protection of crucial natural resources', writes Professor Durant, but would only work if governments across the globe work with multinational firms to regulate the trading of arms, so that the impact of the industry's activities is reduced effectively.

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