We watch war destroying the environment, but we should be acting instead

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Shortly after the start of armed operations to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), 19 oil wells have been set ablaze by retreating armed groups south of the city. UNEP under a Creative Commons Licence

The battle of Mosul proves of the catastrophic impact of war on our environment. This UN day on conflict and the environment, it’s time to act against it, writes Doug Weir.

'This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster.' Last week’s intervention from executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Erik Solheim on the unfolding environmental and humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq, was a stark reminder that war has a catastrophic impact not just on indigenous societies – it also causes appalling damage to the environment.

And not just to ecosystems. As Islamic State set oil wells on fire during the battle of Mosul, skies blackened above the city, threatening the health of civilians stuck in city and of those already displaced, as well as humanitarian workers and military personnel.

For the first time in two decades, conflict and the environment is back on the global political agenda and, as the clouds above Mosul ably demonstrate, it needs to stay on it

The fact that it was Islamic State that started the oil well fires and that set a sulphur factory alight – apparently using both as a weapon of war – illustrates that the actions of states and non-state actors alike threaten the environment during conflicts and with it the health and livelihoods of civilians.


Sulfur dioxide spreads in the air in northwest Iraq on 24 October, after Islamic State set a sulphur factory alight. Nasa Earth Observatory

When the damage is this arresting, when the testimony of its victims so vivid, it seems commonplace to emphasize the link between conflict and the environment.

But we have been here before.

We commemorate the barren wastelands of the Somme; we give pause to consider an ecosystem and population poisoned by dioxin in South East Asia; we remember Iraq in 1991 as the oil wells burned; Serbia in 1999 when toxic industrial chemicals flowed down the Danube; we have watched in the DRC as timber and minerals have fuelled and prolonged its conflict; we recall Lebanon in 2006 as an oil slick coated its beaches.

More recently, we have watched in Ukraine as fighting erupted in the middle of one of the most industrialised regions on Earth; we have watched as Russian and Coalition forces bombed Syria’s oil infrastructure, while its citizens risk their own health to refine fuel to meet their daily needs; and we have watched the predictable collapse, in the wake of one conflict after another, of environmental governance and sustainable development.

We watch. We watch because the environment is big, because it’s complicated, because it’s hard, and because environmental problems are 'cross-cutting issues' and so nobody’s responsibility. We watch because we struggle to make the link between environmental quality and peoples’ lives.

Time to act

Sunday 6 November is the UN day on conflict and the environment. It is just one of many UN annual days. Nevertheless, since 2001 it has served as a platform for raising awareness of the environmental damage associated with armed conflicts.

In recent years, the day has gone by largely unnoticed and unremarked, but 2016 has been a little different to the years that preceded it.

In May, governments at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi adopted by consensus a far-reaching resolution on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict. The last time anything like this happened was in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, as the financial, health and environmental costs of its oil fires were still being counted.

For the first time in two decades, conflict and the environment is back on the global political agenda and, as the clouds above Mosul ably demonstrate, it needs to stay on it.


Satellite images show the consequences for the environment of ISIS's attempt to defend land around Mosul, Iraq by setting fire to oil wells during the summer. Single frames by Nasa Earth Observatory

This has happened twice before. Following the Vietnam War, international law was developed that was intended to protect the environment from widespread destruction during conflict. A considerable achievement for sure, but this protection has subsequently proved to be inadequate, and compliance has been poor. After the 1991 Gulf War, NGOs urged governments to pursue a system that would provide greater protection. The Red Cross tentatively proposed new guidelines for militaries. But neither states nor civil society ultimately proved interested in fighting for genuine progress.

So instead, we went back to watching.

But we have also learned how the environment is shaped by humanity’s interactions with it. Since the 1990s, UNEP and its sister agencies, academia and civil society have assessed and documented the environmental damage caused by numerous conflicts, and the conditions that preceded or followed them. New tools and technologies are making it easier than ever before to monitor environmental harm and its effects on civilians.

Because we have learned, we are undoubtedly far better placed than we were in either of the two historical periods of interest on conflict and the environment to sustain the advocacy necessary for change.

But will we act? Warfare will never – can never – be 'green', but can we work to minimise the harm that it causes? Can we imagine systems that ensure that the damage that is done is properly addressed and remedied, and its victims assisted? And how can public scrutiny of conflicts help to deter the most destructive military behaviours?

Answering these questions will require the input of all those with a stake in the outcome; the states that have suffered or are at risk from environment damage; the communities that face or have faced the environmental consequences of war. It will require leadership from governments and from UN agencies, and above all, it will require the sustained engagement of civil society.

It is here that the breadth and cross-cutting nature of the environment becomes an asset. For biodiversity or conservation NGOs, what happens before, during and after conflicts matters to ecosystems. For human rights NGOs, wartime environmental damage impacts the fundamental rights they strive to protect. For humanitarian NGOs, the delivery and sustainability of their programmes are intimately linked to environmental quality. For development NGOs, the use and abuse of environmental resources during and after conflict is a key challenge for stability and for sustainable development.

Enhancing the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts is a huge task, and past efforts to achieve this goal have failed because we watched when we should have acted. In considering the decades’ long deterioration of Iraq’s environment from conflicts, UNEP’s Solheim argued that the environment needs to be placed at the centre of crisis response, of conflict prevention and conflict resolution

Delivering this will require political will, effort, and the forging of new partnerships between governments, UN agencies and civil society.

The alternative? We just keep watching.

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict. The project is on Twitter: @detoxconflict.

Calculating the environmental benefits of peace in Colombia

Colombian mountains

Pedro Szekely under a Creative Commons Licence

Colombia’s government is promoting the environmental benefits of the FARC peace deal by working out the annual costs of wartime environmental damage, writes Doug Weir.

Colombia’s environment has suffered widespread and severe damage as a result of half a century of armed conflict. With a peace agreement with FARC on the table, the government has been reviewing the financial costs of the damage – and the economic and environmental benefits of peace. By its own calculations, an end to the conflict could see the government saving $2.2 billion a year in addressing avoidable environmental damage. But a sustainable environment will first require a sustainable peace.

The instability that led to Colombia’s 50-year conflict has its roots in 1948, when fighting erupted between the military wings of its Liberal and Conservative parties. From 1964 onwards, it developed into a three-way conflict between the army, paramilitaries and the newly established FARC rebel group. Into this maelstrom would later come the narco-traffickers. The conflict has been characterized by gross human rights violations and a death toll still that is still unclear, with estimates in excess of 200,000.

Natural resources have been exploited by all parties to fuel the conflict. Ecosystems have been harmed by attacks on oil infrastructure and the use of aerial defoliants for eradicating coca and poppy crops. Goldmining and coca production have released pollutants, threatening human health, and rates of deforestation and erosion have been significantly higher in contested areas. Colombia’s environment is sensitive, with its diversity of habitats and flora and fauna making it one of the world’s ‘megadiverse’ countries, hosting 10 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in 314 distinct ecosystems.

Counting the environmental cost of the conflict

With the 23 March deadline for the peace deal between the government and FARC approaching (albeit with the UN’s envoy highlighting the difficulty in realizing the agreement over the FARC’s disarmament) thoughts are turning to the benefits of peace. On 10 March, the government’s national planning department – the Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP) – published a major study on the environmental dividends peace could bring. The DNP’s director, economist Simón Gaviria Muñoz, argued that: ‘Colombia has to be at peace with nature’, and that for every year of peace, Colombia would save COL$7.1 billion (US$2.22 billion) by avoiding the costs of the environmental degradation and pollution linked to the conflict.

The launch event for the report, which was co-hosted by the UNDP, saw the facts of the conflict’s environmental legacy laid bare. Attendees heard that between 1990 and 2013, 58 per cent of Colombia’s deforestation occurred in municipalities affected by the fighting, with 3 million hectares of forest lost – an area the size of Belgium. It was argued that the conflict had led to 1.3 billion additional tonnes of CO2 emissions and caused the degradation of 1.5 million hectares of land, which would take at least 20 years to recover.

Attacks on oil facilities during the last 35 years had caused 4.1 million barrels of oil to be spilled – the equivalent of 16 Exxon Valdez disasters – and the 757,000 barrels released between 2009 and 2013 affected soils and water in 129 of Colombia’s municipalities. Some 86 per cent of gold production in Colombia is unregulated, making Colombia second only to China in mercury releases into the environment, and as a result of oil spills and illegal mining discharges, 60 per cent of the country’s water sources are potentially at risk of pollution.

Speaking at the launch of the study, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos lamented the environmental impact of the conflict: ‘The armed conflict that has affected us all has been a conflict against our natural resources. It has been a real ecocide.’ He announced a 15-year post-conflict plan to increase environmental protection and fight climate change – Sustainable Colombia – which aims to ‘maximize the environmental dividends of peace’. The plan will be supported the Inter-American Development Bank.

Calculating the environmental dividend

Assessing the financial costs of wartime environmental damage at times seems as much art as science. Where it has been done for previous conflicts, such as the 1991 Gulf War, the tendency has been to cost up the direct costs of recovery, for example cleaning up an oil or chemical spill. Colombia’s approach is somewhat different in that it seeks to determine the annual savings across a number of environmental problems associated with the conflict. This approach reflects more recent thinking about the financial value of ecosystem services and the growth of emissions trading schemes.   

The methodology used by the DNP to calculate the costs to human health and the environment that could be avoided if the peace agreement is reached utilized various data sources. It crunched and costed official government statistics on deforestation, illicit crops and illegal mining; data from the oil industry on spills; and estimated the health burden of mercury releases using studies from the World Health Organization and World Bank. The figure of COL$7.1 billion (US$2.22 billion) for avoidable annual environmental costs was reached by totalling:

* COL$4.2 billion for avoiding the recovery costs of each hectare of lost forest.
* COL$936 million in avoidable CO2 emissions per year.
* COL$343 million for timber loss per year.
* COL$636 million in cleaning up oil spills and for the loss of ecosystem services from pollution.
* COL$931 million for the health burden of mercury pollution.

In addition to the potential savings from avoiding these forms of harm, the DNP also addressed the economic and environmental opportunities that could stem from the peace agreement. These considered staffing, securing and improving protected areas, reforms to the rural economy to promote sustainable practices and protect biodiversity, and the expansion of Payments for Environmental Services – although these have not been without controversy in some countries. DNP Director Simón Gaviria Muñoz argued that ‘by taking care of our forests, Colombia can be a world leader in the new “bio-economy” which, according to OECD estimates, in 2030 could represent about 2.5 per cent of GDP in our countries’. One other area of potential economic growth identified in the report was that of eco-tourism – a field where Colombia’s megadiverse status could provide significant opportunities.

Sustainable peace
Colombia’s peace process is not yet a done deal, but it is widely supported by an international community overwhelmed by conflicts and crises. While the DNP’s report is aimed at contributing to the case for peace, it also serves to highlight the economic, health and environmental burden of wartime damage, resource exploitation and the collapse of governance. Internal armed conflicts pose particular challenges to environmental protection during conflict, challenges that are largely under-addressed at present, as demonstrated by the reluctance of states to engage non-state armed groups on environmental protection.

While FARC will likely stick to the Havana deal, if the disarmament issue can be resolved, the ELN rebel group remains outside it and last month was continuing to attack oil infrastructure. If President Santos’s Sustainable Colombia project is to be truly sustainable, it may require all actors to be brought into the deal.  

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict. The project is on Twitter: @detoxconflict

Universalizing environmental and human rights

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Gaza, February, 2007 Marcin Monko under a Creative Commons Licence

As UN special rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment presents his report today, Doug Weir explains why this is especially important in armed conflict.

The question of whether a healthy environment is a human right has been occupying the minds of legal experts and governments since the 1980s. In spite of considerable progress, acceptance of the idea remains far from universal. Yet to the casual observer, the link seems obvious. Today, Professor John Knox, the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the environment will present his latest report on how these rights could be developed and implemented. We believe that the universalization of these environmental rights could have a major role to play in how we judge and respond to the damage caused to the environment by armed conflicts.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand that if you have a human right to life, and a right to the highest attainable level of health, then the environmental factors that influence both life and health must be addressed – be they access to clean drinking water, to air free from pollution or to untainted food. Similarly, if access to effective legal remedies for violations of those fundamental rights is in itself viewed as a human right, then logically that necessitates access to not only bodies able to provide redress but also to knowledge of the environmental threats that may place your enjoyment of those rights at risk.


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Over the last three decades these starting points have developed into three main themes, each of which helps to define how human rights interact with environmental degradation:

  1. The first are the procedural obligations: those that require environmental information to be made publicly available, to facilitate public participation in environmental decision making and to provide access to legal remedies.
  2. The second theme relates to the need for states to adopt institutional frameworks to protect against the types of environmental harm that may infringe on the enjoyment of human rights.
  3. The third is the particular need to recognise those most at risk from the impact of environmental degradation through heightened obligations to protect the most vulnerable.

Back in 2014, and after completing a review of national practice, Professor Knox confirmed that: ‘It is now beyond argument that human rights law includes obligations relating to the environment’. Before urging governments: ‘…to take these obligations into account in the development and implementation of their environmental policies.’ As part of his stock-taking exercise, Professor Knox has found that more than half of the UN’s member states reflect some or all of these environmental rights in national laws or practice, a number have even enshrined them constitutionally.

There has been talk at the UNHRC of a new convention or a declaration of environmental rights, although Professor Knox has cautioned against such a move, as state practice on the three themes outlined above is still evolving. Nevertheless, he has not ruled out such a development in future. But could the developing normative framework around these environmental human rights influence the ‘Wild West’ of environmental protection in conflict?

Armed conflict and the environment

Armed conflict damages the environment in numerous ways – some obvious, others less so. The environment can be harmed directly, for example by the physical destruction of habitats or the generation and dispersal of pollutants. Or conflict may have more indirect consequences, such as those caused by population displacement or the abuse and misuse of natural resources, often encouraged by the collapse of environmental governance. Each of these forms of damage may have repercussions for human health, well-being and livelihoods.

While governments have historically sought to frame wartime damage as harm to the ‘natural environment’, this runs counter to the more common peacetime understanding of the environment as just as much a human construct as a natural one. This paradigm accepts the inescapable dependency of humanity on a functioning and healthy environment. It also supports the notion that protecting the environment from the impact and legacy of armed conflict should be viewed as an essential element of civilian protection. It is this human perspective that suggests that there may be opportunities to strengthen the protection of civilian lives and livelihoods through the application of human rights obligations relating to the environment.

But what might this mean in practice? Obligations on states to protect the environment in relation to armed conflict are minimal and it remains the ‘Wild West’ of environmental law. Those obligations that do exist under international humanitarian law – the body of law that governs how wars are fought – are widely viewed as unfocused and ineffective, problems that help contribute to a widespread lack of compliance. The rapid expansion of peacetime environmental law in recent decades has thrown the inadequacy of legal protection in relation to armed conflicts into sharp relief. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by the UN Environment Programme, the Red Cross and the International Law Commission – an academic body that makes recommendations to the UN on the state of international law.

Human rights and the toxic remnants of war

One form of damage where human rights obligations may prove particularly useful is that of conflict pollution. Toxic remnants of war may be generated from direct attacks on industrial or petrochemical facilities, for example the recent bombing campaign of oil production sites in Syria, or the attacks by Islamic State on Libyan oil storage facilities. The creation of vast quantities of rubble and waste can also pose pollution risks, as does the collapse of environmental governance during conflicts. Weak national authorities may also lose control over their borders, leading to the illegal transit and dumping of toxic materials. In some cases, the weapons of war may in themselves leave behind toxic residues.

These were all issues raised by one of Professor Knox’s UNHRC counterparts, Okechukwu Ibeanu, whose work had primarily focused on rights violations relating to the transport and dumping of toxic waste in peacetime, but who also considered pollution generated in relation to conflicts. He argued that human rights obligations were particularly relevant because, although many of the activities that may have caused pollution during conflict would be governed by international humanitarian law – for example a decision to bomb an oil refinery, pollution lasts beyond the end of conflicts. The primary duty bearer – the legal entity responsible – in such cases would be the government on whose territory the pollution was located, irrespective of whether they were responsible for the activity that caused it.

However, states recovering from armed conflict may often be in a poor position to implement the environmental protection measures necessary to protect fundamental human rights without technical and financial support. Equally, shifting the burden of responsibility from the polluter to the polluted does little to deter harmful practices. This suggest that, while human rights approaches could be useful for informing the civilian protection from conflict pollution, implementing them on the ground and deterring polluters would require a clearer framework for international assistance than currently exists.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions – the treaty that bans cluster bombs and helps ensure that they are cleared and that their victims are assisted – perhaps shows how this could be achieved. Its provisions on victim assistance are based on ensuring the rights of all those affected by the weapons are protected. In doing so, the convention creates the framework that defines the clearance and assistance obligations on affected states, with voluntary donor support from the international community, including from some of those who may have used the weapons. Importantly the convention has stigmatised the use of the weapons, establishing a norm that continues to influence those states that have refused to sign-up.

Protect the environment and you protect civilians

Discussions over whether a more formal system of post-conflict environmental assistance, which protects the rights of communities and that could help stigmatise the most environmentally damaging military practices are for the future. More pressing now is the need to ensure that what constitutes unacceptable wartime environmental damage goes beyond the ‘natural environment’ and is instead driven by the acceptance that environmental protection is a prerequisite for the protection of civilians.

In that respect, it has been reassuring that a draft resolution tabled on the environmental impact of armed conflict for this year’s meeting of the UN Environment Assembly recognises: ‘…the close relationship between human rights and the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’. Unfortunately, a number of governments are seeking the removal of the reference. As the resolution must be agreed by consensus, it is unclear whether this latest sign of the universalization of our fundamental environmental rights will make it to May’s UN Environmental Assembly meeting unscathed. Its loss would be a stark reminder that some governments are not yet ready to accept the interdependency of human and environmental health.

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict. The project is on Twitter: @detoxconflict

Armed conflict, environmental protection and the Sustainable Development Goals

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Unless the international community does more to protect and restore the environment from the impact of armed conflict, many countries will fail to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, writes Doug Weir.

This year will see the second biennial meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the new, and it is hoped, more politically influential incarnation of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council. One of UNEA-2’s joint themes this year is ‘delivering the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). The SDGs, which replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to much fanfare in 2015, are intended as a blueprint for development for the next 15 years and seek to integrate the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.

Last October, and as part of the preparations for UNEA-2, the government of Ukraine announced its intention to table a draft resolution on the ‘protection of the environment in conflict affected areas’. The conflict in and around the Donbas region of Ukraine has had a number of serious environmental impacts, these range from groundwater contamination caused by flooded mines, to damage to its natural resources. The conflict also exacerbated pre-existing environmental problems in the heavily industrialized region. As a result, Ukraine has joined a growing number of countries whose environments have been seriously damaged or degraded as a result of armed conflict in recent years.

The initiative by Ukraine reflects a growing international interest in environmental protection in relation to armed conflicts. This is being fuelled by the recognition that the existing laws of war do little to minimize harm, while the largely ad hoc responses by the international community to environmental damage in the wake of conflicts are often inadequate. These are both problems that carry with them serious implications for the health and well-being of civilians and ecosystems alike. Similarly, an increased understanding and awareness of the role that natural resources can play in triggering and sustaining conflicts, and in building lasting peace, is encouraging a reappraisal of the environment as a security issue.

Armed conflict and the environmental dimension of sustainable development

One of the lessons from the MDGs was that conflict severely diminished the likelihood that their goals and targets would be met. This reflects the maxim that there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development. Indeed of the seven countries that had failed to reach a single one of the MDGs by 2014, six were classed as fragile states. In recognition of this, Goal 16 of the new SDGs is dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.

The SDGs dealing directly with environmental sustainability are a considerable improvement on the environmental targets in the MDGs, which were viewed as poorly integrated into social and economic development and in places difficult to measure. The new SDGs cover water resources and pollution, the protection of marine and terrestrial environments and resources, and climate change. Taken as a whole, they seek to tackle a broad suite of contemporary environmental challenges, from reducing water pollution and overfishing, to slowing deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Of the 169 voluntary goals of the SDGs, none specifically covers the need to better protect the environment before, during or after armed conflict. Nevertheless the lesson from the MDGs suggests that insecurity, and armed conflict and its aftermath, are key factors that influence the delivery of sustainable development targets. But to what extent would efforts to strengthen protection for the environment in relation to armed conflicts, as Ukraine’s UNEA initiative seeks to do, complement the aims of the SDGs?

Writing on the linkages between the protection of the environment in armed conflict and sustainable development in 2013, Dr Onita Das from the University of the West of England found that the weak existing legal provisions for the protection of the environment during conflict, and the lack of formal obligations governing assistance for harm, posed a significant challenge to sustainable recovery and development. Dr Das observed that it was: ‘…regrettable that thus far customary international law has not developed to a point where adequate protection is provided for the environment in times of armed conflict. Such environmental harm puts further obstacles in the path of sustainable development, having a negative impact on security, development, environmental and human well-being.’

The SDGs and the environmental impact of contemporary conflicts

The challenge that the environmental legacy of armed conflict will present for the attainment of the SDGs can be seen in a number of recent and ongoing conflicts. As befits the cross-cutting nature of sustainable development itself, warfare has direct and derived consequences for the environment, at times extending beyond the conflict zone itself. As the SDGs do not only apply to the least developed or developing countries but are universal, in theory they apply to all conflict affected states.

Beginning with Ukraine itself, which of the SDG targets will have been negatively influenced by the conflict? As noted above, there are fears of significant and widespread groundwater contamination from flooded mines; this poses a challenge to SDGs 6.3 and 6.6. Meanwhile the collapse of environmental governance has led to a rise in illegal timber extraction (SDG 15.2) and the loss of management for protected areas (SDG 15.4), in addition to the direct environmental damage wrought by the conflict itself.

The ongoing conflict in Syria has effectively halted nationwide efforts to meet environmental obligations from existing multilateral agreements on chemicals (SDG 12.4), biodiversity and water. And, while the security conditions on the ground do not allow for detailed assessment, data is emerging of widespread damage to industrial, water and power facilities (SDGs 3.9, 6.3 and 6.6). Similarly, oil installations across the country have been subject to attacks by armed groups and intensive bombing from Coalition and Russian aircraft, with potential repercussions for public health and the environment (SDGs 3.9 and 6.3). Population displacement from the conflict is also having an environmental impact, both in Syria and in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, with the massive influx of refugees impacting air quality (SDG 3.9), water quality (SDG 6.3) and biodiversity (SDG 15.4).

In Iraq, a country that suffered widespread damage to marine (SDG 14.1), terrestrial and freshwater (SDG 15.1) ecosystems in the 1991 Gulf War, the rise of Islamic State and the spill over from the conflict in Syria are creating new environmental problems and exacerbating existing ones. There have been numerous attacks on petroleum facilities and cases of deliberate pollution of rivers (SDGs 3.9 and 6.3). Loss of control over areas of the country is also limiting the government’s ability to deliver on Iraq’s national environmental policies.

Time to tackle conflict and the environment

The nature of damage related to these three conflicts supports the belief that the successful delivery of the key health, environmental and economic tests of the SDGs will require more than vague notions about transitions to peaceful and just societies. The direct and indirect damage caused by armed conflicts, not only to the environment itself but also to the systems of environmental governance upon which ecosystems, economies and public health depend, have serious consequences for sustainable development.

The SDGs do not explicitly require states to identify the environmental drivers of armed conflicts or integrate natural resource management into peacebuilding. They do not demand substantive progress on legal frameworks to minimize wartime environmental damage. And they do not insist on ensuring effective, well-funded and sustainable environmental assistance in the wake of conflicts, or the robust mainstreaming of environmental protection in humanitarian response.

Yet the lesson from the MDGs, and from conflicts across the globe, is that concrete efforts in all four areas would contribute significantly to the chances of war-torn states achieving the goals set out in the SDGs. In this respect, Ukraine’s proposed initiative at UNEA-2 this year is a welcome step forward and, as such, should be endorsed by all governments that support a successful outcome for the SDGs.

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project @detoxconflict, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict.

Depleted Uranium – the facts

Depleted uranium’s uses



Who owns DU weapons and who has used them?

At least 18 countries are thought to have weapon systems with DU in their arsenals. These include: UK, US, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Oman, Thailand, China, India and Taiwan. Many of them were sold DU ammunition by the US while others, including France, Russia, Pakistan and India are thought to have developed it independently.

Governments have often initially denied using DU because of public health concerns. Estimates of DU munitions expended run to 280 tonnes in the Gulf War of 1991 by US and UK forces; and 14 tonnes in the Balkans in the latter half of the 1990s by NATO. There was further large-scale use in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but there is little data on this.

It is suspected that the US also used DU in Afghanistan in 2001, although both the US and UK governments have denied using it there. Leaked US transport documents suggest that US forces in Afghanistan had DU weapons,^3^ and the use of A10 ‘Tankbuster’ aircraft in the country indicates that 30mm DU ammunition continues to be used.

DU arsenals (selected countries)^4^

*Britain*
The development of the 120mm ‘CHARM 1’ and ‘CHARM 3’ tank ammunition together cost $75 million. The UK also used 20mm shells as part of the US-built Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System until the manufacturer Raytheon stopped producing them after the US Navy cancelled its contract with them. *India*
A declassified UK Ministry of Defence paper on DU suggests that India was developing DU weapons in the early 1990s. It is now thought that they are manufacturing 125mm 3BM32 shells under licence from Russia. *Israel*
Palestinians allege that Israel has been using ammunition containing DU in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has tanks capable of firing DU rounds, and has received limited exports of US-made DU ammunition. *Kuwait*
Kuwait was offered ‘major non-NATO ally’ status by the US in 2004 which allows it to use US Foreign Assistance funds to purchase DU penetrators. Kuwait is thought to have bought 11,336 rounds of 120mm ammunition from US manufacturer Alliant Techsystems. *Pakistan*
The Pakistani National Development Complex (NDC) is developing a 125mm armour-piercing projectile with a DU long-rod penetrator for use with T-80UD tanks. The Pakistani Army already possess 105mm DU tank ammunition. *Russia*
General Export for Defence manufacture 125mm 3BM32 tank ammunition, containing a DU penetrator. They have also marketed a tank round encased in a DU liner for ‘enhanced killing power’. *Turkey*
Turkey bought 22,920 120 mm M833 and 85,451 105mm M774 APFSDS-T DU penetrators from the US in the early 1990s. *United States*
The US is by far the largest user of DU weapons. Over the past decade they have bought more than 16 million DU shells and bullets from Alliant Techsystems alone. *China*
China has manufactured and deployed a 125mm DU penetrator for use in its tanks.



Who profits?

DU is expensive and hazardous to store, so it is provided at a very low cost to arms manufacturers. They make handsome profits. A single A10 30mm cannon shell retails at $20. Theoretically an A10’s Gatling gun could fire $80,000 worth in 60 seconds (in practice they can only fire for a few seconds at a time). Arms manufacturer Alliant Techsystems has produced more than 15 million 30mm PGU-14 shells for the US Air Force and over a million 120mm M829 rounds for the US Army. They also produce small-calibre rounds (25mm, 30mm) for guns on US aircraft and fighting vehicles. In February 2006, the US Army placed an order for $38 million of M829 rounds, bringing the total order from Alliant Techsystems to $77 million for that fiscal year. Three US companies produce large-calibre DU tank rounds: Alliant Techsystems (120mm shells), Day & Zimmerman/American Ordnance (120mm shells) and the former Primex Technologies, now General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (105mm and 120mm shells). Five other companies – located in France, India, Serbia, the former Soviet Union, and Pakistan – also produce large-calibre tank rounds. China is suspected of having speciality metal machining plants capable of manufacturing penetrators.



Why is DU a problem?

The DU oxide dust produced when DU munitions burn is readily inhaled into and retained by the lungs. From the lungs uranium compounds are deposited in the lymph nodes, bones, brain and testes. The dust can travel many kilometres when re-suspended, as is likely in arid climates. When penetrators miss their targets (typical of aircraft strikes) they can remain partially intact. In the Balkans more than 31,000 30mm penetrators were fired. UNEP reported that these corroding penetrators were likely to contaminate groundwater and drinking water supplies and should be removed.^5^

Health effects: radioactivity

The chief radiological hazard from DU is alpha radiation. However, as DU particles decay, both beta and gamma radiation are released, increasing the radiation burden further. Chromosome damage from internalized alpha particles is about 100 times greater than that caused by an equivalent amount of other radiation. In one day, one microgram (one millionth of a gram) of DU can release 107,000 alpha particles. Each particle is charged with more than four million electron volts of energy; this goes directly into whichever organ or tissue it is lodged in. It only requires 6 to 10 electron volts to break a DNA strand in a cell.^6^ Internal alpha radiation also has other effects.^7^ The *Bystander Effect* – cells adjacent to those struck by alpha particles also exhibit signs of radiation damage. *Genomic Instability* – the descendants of radiation-damaged cells show increased rates of mutations, the precursor to cancer growth. Ionizing radiation is a carcinogen at every dose-level; there is no threshold dose and any alpha particle can cause irreparable genetic damage.

Health effects: chemical toxicity

DU is a toxic heavy metal. Cellular and animal studies have shown that uranium is a kidney toxin, neurotoxin, immunotoxin, mutagen (agent which changes the genetic information of an organism), carcinogen and teratogen (agent causing malformations of the embryo or foetus).

Also DU’s toxicity and radioactivity may combine to create a synergistic effect,^12^ amplifying each other, thereby increasing the damage caused to cells – resulting in tumours or a range of whole-body symptoms.

DU in the environment

Tests by the US Army suggest that between 18% and 70% of a penetrator dart burns into small particles following a hard impact – this equates to between 900 and 3,400 grams of dust for a 120mm penetrator. Between 50% and 90% of these particles were found to be of respirable size and stayed airborne for many hours after they were produced.^13^ Research published earlier this year by Leicester University found that, in the 1960s and 1970s, uranium particles from a foundry in Colonie, near New York, had travelled more than six kilometres from source and survived for 25 years. This indicates that people returning to areas contaminated by DU following conflicts will continue to be at risk of inhalation exposure for many years.^14^



The DU stockpile

graph of DU stocks per country

Facts researched by *Doug Weir* of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.



All unreferenced material has been sourced from the database of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons www.bandepleteduranium.org

  1. World Information Service on Energy: www.wise-uranium.org/eddat.html
  2. Bernard Del Frari, ‘The Global Nuclear Fuel Market Supply and Demand 2001-2020’, www.world-nuclear.org/sym/2001/delfrari.htm
  3. Leaked US Army transport letter: www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/113.html
  4. Jane’s information group www.janes.com; Jane’s Ammunition Handbooks 2004 and 2005-06; Dan Fahey, ‘Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda In the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons’, www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/pdf/dumyths.pdf
  5. ‘United Nations Environment Programme Recommends Precautionary Action Regarding Depleted Uranium In Kosovo’, UNEP press release, March 2001, http://tinyurl.com/26pfck
  6. R Bertell, ‘Depleted Uranium: All the Questions About DU and Gulf War Syndrome Are Not Yet Answered’, in International Journal of Health Services, Volume 36, Number 3, 2006.
  7. Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE), Final Report, www.cerrie.org, sponsored by the UK Dept of Health and DEFRA.
  8. Stearns et al, ‘Uranyl acetate induces hprt mutations and uranium-DNA adducts in Chinese hamster ovaries’, in Mutagenesis, 2005.
  9. I Dublineau et al, ‘Short-term effects of depleted uranium on immune status in rat intestine’, in Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, September 2006.
  10. Hartsock et al, ‘Uranyl Acetate as a Direct Inhibitor of DNA-Binding Proteins’, in Chemical Research in Toxicology, Volume 20, Number 5, 2007.
  11. Wise et al, ‘Particulate Depleted Uranium is Cytotoxic and Clastogenic to Human Lung Cells’, in Chemical Research in Toxicology, 20 (5), 2007.
  12. Presentation at European Parliament 19 July 2005 by Dr Keith Baverstock, formerly of the WHO. Full text: www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/24.html
  13. ‘Summation of ARDEC Test Data Pertaining to the Oxidation of Depleted Uranium During Battlefield Conditions’, US Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC), 8 March 1991; Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium use in the US Army; US Army Environmental Policy Institute, June 1995.
  14. Lloyd Parrish, ‘Several Tonnes of Uranium and a Town called Colonie’, 2007, http://tinyurl.com/2v7g6s

Don't look, don't find

It is a typical news day: another car bomb has gone off, leaving 80 Iraqi civilians dead. Another 136 are injured. More bad news from Iraq. The mainstream media covers it, as editors realize that there is still some mileage in Iraqi horror stories. But it is an easy story to cover, a straightforward story – a war, a blast, the dead and the accused. Outside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, in the slums, backstreets and hospital wards, there is another story unfolding, a story that doesn’t suit the demands of 24-hour news channel soundbites and which would sit uncomfortably alongside the celebrity exposés of the tabloid press.

In 1991, a superpower and its allies engaged Iraqi tanks in open warfare. The desert became littered with the burned-out hulks of Russian-made T72 tanks, artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers. To the defenders of Kuwait’s sovereignty and oil fields it was an unmitigated success. To the populations of the cities bordering these battlefields, it would become an unmitigated disaster. The US and Britain had deployed a new anti-armour weapon, a ‘silver bullet’ that boosted both range and accuracy. Iraq’s modern, mechanized brigades stood little chance against the air and ground onslaught. That silver bullet was the radioactive heavy metal Depleted Uranium (DU).

In the years that followed, and as malnourished Iraqi civilians struggled under an ill-conceived and poorly managed sanctions regime, reports began to filter out of a sharp rise in cancers and birth defects. It was Western journalists who broke the story, but it was Saddam Hussein’s media apparatus that drew a response from the Western powers. ‘Ba’athist propaganda,’ claimed the British Government’s Foreign Office. ‘In all likelihood a result of his use of chemical weapons on his own people.’ It is a line that has changed little over the years.

‘Yes, chemical weapons used during Saddam’s time and malnutrition might have a role,’ admits Dr Jawad Al-Ali, oncologist at Basra’s Al-Sadr Teaching Hospital. ‘We know that cancers and birth defects are multi-factoral and that these factors might help or augment the other factors which then produce these diseases.

‘However, from the studies in the region and the sequence of appearance of these diseases, it seems real that it is related to the use of DU in the area. It is the reality and not propaganda. We were not affected or influenced by Ba’ath Party policy at that time.’

That sequence is clearly illustrated in the histopathological (tissue analysis) reports kept by Basra Teaching Hospital. They show a range of cancers increasing exponentially throughout the 1990s. Between 1990 and 1997 uterine cancers increased by 160 per cent, thyroid cancer by 143 per cent, breast cancer by 102 per cent and leukaemia by 82 per cent. Not only were the incidence rates increasing, but their age distribution was shifting downwards, from old to young.

‘The changes in the pattern of presentation, dissemination and age distribution that we are seeing are different to those within a normal population,’ says Dr Al-Ali. ‘We have also seen a rise in the presence of double and triple cancers in patients. We know many carcinogenic factors are available in our environment, but the rates increased only a few years after the 1991 war and now after the 2003 conflict we have started to have another alarming increase.’

‘Member States must take stock of the guidelines drawn up to protect all victims of war. It is vital that maps be prepared and kept to facilitate clean-up activities when former belligerents come to the table to talk peace. The innocent should not be made to suffer long after the weapons of war have been silenced.’
UNEP in 2002

At 63 years old, British-trained cancer specialist Dr Al-Ali is one of a diminishing number of physicians who have elected to stay in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Many have fled to Jordan and Europe as the security situation has deteriorated. In the last two years he has received death threats from criminal gangs and two attempts have been made to burgle his home. Three days before our interview took place, his brother and a close friend were shot dead by unknown assailants.

‘It is the tight bonds to my city, the earth and the will to serve my people that have kept me working under such insecure conditions,’ he says. ‘Now we have only six hours of electricity every day, in a country where temperatures can reach 50˚C. There is no healthy water supply and water-borne infections are killing children and adults alike.’

The collapse in basic services is mirrored by a desperate lack of basic medicines and equipment at the Al-Sadr Teaching Hospital. Equipment that Western hospitals would take for granted, such as radiotherapy machines, are missing, out of order or in need of spare parts, while laboratory equipment for different tests like hormonal, cytological and tumour markers are not available. Dr Al-Ali believes that the hospital’s state funding amounts to no more than 10 per cent of its requirements.

Even worse has been the discovery of hospital medical supplies being diverted to the black market after thefts from warehouses. ‘On the boxes of these medicines is written MOH, or not for sale,’ says Dr Al-Ali. ‘It means these drugs are imported specifically for the Iraqi Ministry of Health. These are expensive drugs, sometimes costing $450 for one vial, which are needed by poor patients who have cancers.’

Basra was one of the cities closest to the 1991 tank battlefields. Maps of the area compiled by Khajak Vartanian of the Iraqi Green Land Association show dozens of military vehicles destroyed by DU strikes. When overlain by the locations of wreckage from the 2003 invasion, where DU was used in large quantities in urban areas, it becomes clear that Basra is a city besieged by contamination. As such, it fell to Dr Al-Ali and his staff to deal with and document the growing public health crisis as best they could.

They began by reconstructing the city’s cancer registry. As one of the Middle East’s more developed states prior to the Iran-Iraq War, there was a wealth of data available. Their next challenge was to record the current cancer rates. Dr Al-Ali’s team now ensure that cancer registry forms are distributed to all hospitals and laboratories in the area. They also go out into the city to collect data, but this is hampered by the security situation and bodyguards accompany his team when visiting areas outside the centre.

Risks ignored

While his team has made great advances in documenting the health situation on the ground, Dr Al-Ali is open about the need for support from international specialists. Thus far it has come from civil society only, in spite of the overwhelming need for a thorough and independent epidemiological survey in the area. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been unable to investigate the issue on the ground, which is a situation that suits the US and British Governments perfectly.

This July, Iraq’s Environment Minister Nermin Othman called for international assistance after her ministry’s research linked a sharp increase in cancer to the 350 DU-contaminated sites across Iraq: ‘The nation is facing about 140,000 cases of cancer, with 7,000 to 8,000 new ones registered each year,’ she said. ’Our ministry is fledgling, and we need international support; notably, we need laboratories to better monitor air and water contamination.’

Part of the problem lies with the scientific mainstream’s response to the DU issue. Two major reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the British Royal Society have discounted any danger from DU, other than in the most extreme circumstances. In spite of their being compiled seven years ago, they are still hailed as the final word on the issue.

Yet since their publication dozens of papers have been published on the processes through which uranium can damage the body, and a reassessment of the health threat from DU is long overdue. Under suspicion are uranium’s heavy-metal toxicity and the effects of alpha radiation emitters inside the body.

Dr Keith Baverstock has more than 30 years’ experience in researching the hazards of environmental and occupational exposure to ionizing radiation. He worked for the WHO for 12 years until his retirement in 2003 and now studies DU at the University of Kuopio, Finland. During the development of the WHO’s stance, he discovered evidence that DU was potentially genotoxic – in other words, it is capable of damaging human genetic material, potentially leading to cancer. This peer-reviewed data, which came from the US military’s own research, was excluded from the final draft of what would become the ‘WHO Monograph’. Baverstock blames direct pressure from senior management.

‘To assert the WHO’s independence [from the states that fund it] requires strong individuals at the top backed up by a highly competent and expert staff, well motivated to provide the best scientific advice,’ says Dr Baverstock. ‘Intellectually weak individuals at the top see good experts as a threat and recruit yes men or cronies in their place. This process has weakened the WHO, perhaps permanently.’

Last November, Dr Baverstock gave evidence to the Defence Committee of the Belgian House of Representatives, where he said: ‘The genotoxic character of uranium is not addressed by the WHO Monograph and receives only a passing mention in the Royal Society Reports. Both agencies concentrate on the radio-toxicity to the lung from insoluble uranium and the physiological toxicity to the kidney from systemic uranium.’ This position ignored the genotoxic risk to the lung from both the soluble and insoluble components of DU dust, and a similar risk to other body tissues from particles that cross into the body from the lungs.

As Dr Baverstock observed: ‘The depleted uranium oxide dust produced when DU munitions burn has no natural, or indeed historical, analogue… there is, therefore, much uncertainty about how these particles will behave in the environment.’

The story of DU and its effects on human health has been characterized by a ‘don’t look, don’t find’ mindset from the military, governments and the scientific bodies that undertake research on their behalf. So far the US has refused to release detailed information on where DU was used in Iraq, and after the Kosovo conflict, it took NATO 18 months to submit maps of DU strikes to UNEP.

This is an untenable position and the international community must take an honest look at the health hazards posed by uranium munitions. Iraqi doctors like Dr Al-Ali and his colleagues are in desperate need of financial and professional assistance if they are to undertake detailed epidemiological survey work in areas where these weapons have been used. Until aggressor nations begin to accept responsibility for the environmental damage they cause, civilians in post-conflict environments will continue to face an uncertain future.

*Doug Weir* is the Co-ordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW).

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