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Environmental crimes around the world rarely get attention, but the Ukraine-Russia war could set a new precedent. Ukraine holds Russia accountable for environmental crimes. On 19th May, Ukraine’s environment minister said that the country would seek compensation in international courts for ecological damage caused by Russia’s invasion of the country.
As Ukrainian forensic investigators uncover evidence of killings amounting to war crimes, a different group of experts is working on recording the impact of the Russian war on the environment. Ukraine’s Environmental Protection Ministry announced last month that exploded missiles, air bombs, and destroyed military equipment and ammunition pollute the soil and groundwater by leaching chemicals, including heavy metals, into them.
Towards the end of April, the environmental expert group reported around 3,300 incidents of environmental crimes in approximately 600 settlements, cities, towns, and villages. They said that the invasion had destroyed natural wildlife habitats. The war also extensively damaged agricultural land in Ukraine. The country is known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ because of its large wheat production.
The Ukraine-Russia war situation is serious. It impacts not only people but also the environment. Environmental pollution has been a major issue for Ukraine for many years. Ukraine, a former Soviet country, has 15 nuclear reactors, around 1,600 petrochemical, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies, and 148 coal mines.
According to Ukraine, Russia has used 27,79,169 explosive devices, 567.4 kg of explosives, and 1,955 aircraft bombs since its invasion of the country began on 24th February till 27th April 2022. Ukraine’s Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources announced that farmers had abandoned about 13,989 hectares of land in villages.
The central government announced that the cost of rebuilding Ukraine’s cities could be as high as 600 billion dollars. But, reversing the damage inflicted by the war on natural resources alone amounts to 77 million dollars.
Countries rarely ever bring environmental damage to an international or national court of law. But the war in Ukraine could change that. The Russian invasion of Ukraine could mark the start of solid legislation on the links between human suffering, environmental harm, and conflict.
To ensure that Ukraine holds Russia accountable for environmental crimes, the country has started documenting and mapping possible ecological crimes. Ukrainian and international organizations are using government bulletins, satellite images, open-source information, and media reports to gather evidence. Ecoaction, a non-profit organization based in Kyiv, reported that they fact-checked 200 incidents that could amount to crimes against the environment. The organization will hand over this information to Ukraine’s Ministry of Environment, prosecutors, and military experts. This group of people will prepare a case and bring it before an international court of law.
The United Nations Environment Programme will also receive data from Ukrainian environmental organizations. Health experts said they believe it could take years to clean up the pollutants released by the war. The war has increased the risk of cancer, respiratory ailments, and developmental delays in children.
Mapping will help environmental experts to understand which ground areas to focus on once the conflict subsides. Ukraine has also started drafting new legislation. The legislation will set a common framework for economically evaluating damages to natural resources.
In 2014, Russia attacked Donbas, Ukraine’s coal and steel producing area. Russia fired artillery into the fertile stretch of land. The attack paralyzed many aspects of environmental protection, including the management of coal mines. Management authorities had to halt pumping. Pumping was essential to ensure that toxic water did not fill the mine shafts and pollute ground and drinking water.
According to 2015 UN estimates, the cost of rehabilitating the environment at Donbas would amount to 30 million dollars. Ukraine would need an additional 40 million dollars to restore sanitation and water supply.
Even during the current way, Russia refocused its invasion on this region. The region is home to about 4,500 mining, chemical, and metallurgical businesses. Ukraine shares the Dnieper River with Belarus and Russia. The contamination of the river’s water due to the war will affect both these countries.
As we mentioned before, Ukraine hosts many nuclear reactors. Waging war in a nuclear country puts the countries downwind of radioactive release at risk.
300 forest fires broke out in Siberia last month. But Russia is incapable of putting them out. Russia is currently focusing on the west of the country, where retaliatory Ukrainian attacks targeted oil depots.
As an example, let’s discuss the 1990-1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After the war ended, the UN held Iraq accountable for damage to the environment and public health.
In the Russia-Ukraine war, the International Criminal Court will prosecute Russia’s environmental crimes and other grave offences. But, Russia does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction. Therefore, the country is highly unlikely to experience a treatment similar to Iraq in 1991.
To show that Ukraine holds Russia accountable for environmental crimes caused by military action, the country will need to present baseline data. It will not be easy for Ukraine to prove that Russia’s military action was unnecessary and resulted in environmental damage. It is a very broad loophole. Additionally, the Geneva Convention and other environmental legislations pay very close attention when it comes to the principle of proportionality and ‘military necessity’.
But, if the world can recognize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an ‘illegal war’, what are legit military objectives become fundamentally irrelevant.
The UN has been working on a decade-long project to enhance the legal protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts. However, member states have opposed this project. But, the Ukrainian invasion has the potential to highlight the threat that war poses to the environment and the weaknesses of existing legal frameworks in protecting the environment.
In 2013, the UN International Law Commission undertook a project called Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts (PERAC). So far, the project has identified 28 principles that define the legal framework on topics ranging from environmental protection during the occupation to state accountability.
This year will witness the conclusion of PERAC with a vote at the UN General Assembly. It would be a significant event for the legal framework on conflict and the environment. The principles of the framework remain non-binding and will not directly apply to Ukraine. However, the conflict could facilitate the political will for objector member states like Canada, the United States, and France to accept the principles. Acceptance of the principles by member states will warrant better environmental protection in future conflicts.
The recognition that the environment is important even in times of conflict and war is long overdue.