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Five years after Rio

23-06-1997 Statement

Written statement at the United Nations General Assembly, 19th special session, 23-27 June 1997.

As the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict is part of international humanitarian law, it is of particular concern to the ICRC.The major challenge facing international humanitarian law today is implementation. There is a particularly blatant contrast between the highly developed rules of international humanitarian law, many of which enjoy universal acceptance, and their repeated violations in conflicts around the world. The ICRC, therefore, focuses its efforts on various aspects of implementation: namely, improving national implementation through training of military personnel, incorporation of international norms into national law, and ensuring respect by repressing violations of international humanitarian law. This multi-faceted approach has also been followed with regard to those rules of international humanitarian law that offer protection to the environment as will be explained below. Finally, mention will be made of the impact of landmines on the environment.

 National Implementation  

In the wake of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, in particular Principle 24 [1 ] and at the request of the General Assembly, the ICRC has consulted with experts on the course to be followed to improve environmental protection in times of armed conflict. The option recommended by these experts was not to develop new law - the proposed Fifth Geneva Convention [2 ] did not come into existence - but rather to emphasize better knowledge and respect for existing law.

With the assistance of the experts consulted, the ICRC, therefore, developed guidelines for military manuals and instructio ns on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict.[3 ] Without formally adopting these guidelines, the General Assembly has invited all States " to disseminate widely " the Guidelines developed by the ICRC and " to give due consideration to the possibility of incorporating them into their military manuals and other instructions addressed to their military personnel.[4 ] Subsequent efforts have been made to spread knowledge of these Guidelines, concentrating in particular on helping States to promote broad circulation of their content and to consider the possibility of incorporating them in their respective military instruction manuals, as invited by General Assembly Resolution 49/50 of 9 December 1994.

The Guidelines have to be taken for what they are intended to be: a tool for making the existing international legal rules on the protection of the natural environment in times of armed conflict better known to those who must comply with them in the course of military operations, namely the members of the armed forces. The Guidelines are neither an international treaty nor the draft for a codification exercise. As a summary of applicable law, they deserve the widest dissemination and scrupulous respect.

In a similar vein, the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea was prepared by a group of international lawyers and naval experts convened by the International Institute of Humanitarian Law (San Remo) with the support of the ICRC.[5 ] The San Remo Manual is a contemporary restatement - together with some progressive development - of the law applicable to armed conflicts at sea. The Manual reiterates the basic principles that methods and means of warfare should be emplo yed with due regard for the natural environment taking into account the relevant rules of international law and that damage to or destruction of the natural environment not justified by military necessity and carried out wantonly is prohibited. The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Resolution 3), urged states that had not yet done so to draft manuals on international humanitarian law applicable to armed conflicts at sea and to take into account, whenever possible, the provisions of the San Remo Manual when drafting such manuals and other instructions for their naval forces.

Finally, the ICRC has started work on a model manual for the armed forces on the law of armed conflicts, which will be primarily designed for use by senior officers with tactical responsibilities. The manual, which will adopt a pragmatic and pedagogical approach, is meant to be a reference tool mainly for military commanders without a legal background, thereby facilitating the incorporation of rules of international humanitarian law, including those on the protection of the environment, into the operational decision-making process.

 Customary International Law  

With a view to finding further ways to improve implementation of existing law, the Intergovernmental Group of Experts for the Protection of War Victims and the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent invited the ICRC to prepare, with the assistance of experts representing various geographical regions and legal systems, and in consultation with experts from governments and international organizations, a report on customary rules of international humanitarian law applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts. The results of this study will be presented at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999 and will also clar ify the customary nature of the rules of international humanitarian law that deal with the protection of the environment. The Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons of 8 July 1996 has made an important contribution in this respect as it refers to the customary law requirement to take environmental considerations into account in the implementation of international humanitarian law.

The call for better implementation and incorporation at the national level and the clarification of customary rules of international humanitarian law does not diminish the need for States to accede to international treaties that protect the environment in times of armed conflict, most importantly the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (10 December 1976, presently 64 States Parties), Protocol I Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (8 June 1977, presently 147 States Parties), Protocol II Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (8 June 1977, presently 139 States Parties) and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its Protocols II and III on Mines, Booby-Traps and other Devices and on Incendiary Weapons respectively (10 October 1980, presently 66 States Parties [6 ] ). The fact that these treaties have not yet been universally ratified is an impediment to full protection of the environment in times of armed conflict and the ICRC would like to urge States that have not yet done so to accede to these treaties forthwith.

 Repression of Violations  

The ICRC is highly interested and actively involved in the recent developments regarding the repression of war crimes, a matter directly related to the implementation of international humanitarian law. In this context, the creation of the two ad hoc Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda was welcomed by the ICRC.

Nevertheless, the ICRC strongly believes that the creation of these Tribunals should only be part of a larger process that will hopefully culminate in the establishment of an independent, impartial and permanent international criminal court. In this respect, the ICRC would like to repeat its wish to see a definition of war crimes that would include willfully causing widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment and this both for international and non-international armed conflicts. At present, this definition is included in the Draft Consolidated Text concerning the definition of war crimes of the Preparatory Committee on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court.[7 ] The ICRC would like to urge States to support its inclusion in the final statute of the International Criminal Court. In the end, only serious measures of implementation such as these can ensure respect for the rules on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict.

 Landmines  

Finally, there has been much discussion lately about the unacceptable effects of anti-personnel landmines. However, not much has been said about their negative impact on the environment. In this context, the ICRC fully supports the opinion that anti-personnel landmines may be one of the most widespread, lethal and long-lasting forms of pollution the world has yet encountered. Indeed, these weapons render large tracts of land dangerous to both humans and animals alike and unusable for habitation or agriculture for decades after the end of conflicts. This in turn intensifies the overuse and environmental degradation of remaining available land. The denial of access to land and river areas often results in significant economic disruption, increased hunger and disease in th e countries affected. To stop this savagery the ICRC has started an intensive campaign for a total ban on anti-personnel landmines which will culminate shortly in a Conference to be convened by the Canadian Government in Ottawa in December 1997. The ICRC hopes that a universal and total ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines can be achieved at the earliest possible date and that States make the necessary resources available to clear affected areas of these indiscriminate weapons.

 Notes  

1. Principle 24 states that " warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary. "

2. See Glen Plant, Environmental Protection and the Law of War: A Fifth Geneva Convention on the Protection of the Environment in Time of Armed Conflict (1992).

3. The Guidelines have been published as an annex to UN Doc. A/49/323 (1994). They are reprinted in 36 International Review of the Red Cross 231 (1996) which is also available on the ICRC website.

4. GA Res. 49/50 on the United Nations Decade of International Law (9 Dec. 1994)

5. The Manual together with a commentary (entitled " Explanation " ) is published in San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea (Louise Doswald-Beck, ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 1995). The Manual is reprinted in 35 International Review of the Red Cross 595 (1995) which is also available on the ICRC website

6. In addition, 5 States so far have accepted the revised version of th is Protocol II on mines, adopted on 3 May 1996 and not yet in force.

7. UN Doc. A/AC.249/1997/WG.1/CRP.2 (20 Feb. 1997).

Ref. LG 1997-078-ENG