By Anna Ploeg
It is late January 1991, you are a lonely Talha tree in the middle of the Kuwait desert. For over half a year, you have felt the ground that holds your roots tight shake from the impact of stomping troops invading the soil around you. Finally, there is hope on the horizon with the welcoming of a US led coalition to drive out Iraqi forces, but this effort is met with rage as hundreds of oil wells are set ablaze. Your immediate reaction is to shut down and hold your breath until it’s over.
You wake up and shake out your leaves as you gasp for sunlight to nourish you, yet none is to be found as the sky is covered with thick black clouds. The amount of carbon dioxide released into the air is more than you can handle so you cannot help but choke on it’s toxicity, yet no one hears your cry. The polluted air you depend on quickly became full of soot and oil droplets. Your green luscious leaves deteriorated from a vibrant healthy green colour as they became covered in black ash – remnants from the explosions.
You feel alone. If only you had a neighbouring friend to reach out to so that your roots could send distress signals, but as you are situated in an arid desert environment, you are miles away from another mature Talha tree. So you conserve your energy in hopes that a fresh rain will come to wash away your unwelcomed new coat. The rain finally comes, yet it is far from fresh. Your roots try to absorb nutrients from the groundwater deep below, but you are met with a distasteful aluminium substance that can only be the result of acid rain.
As firefighters and peacekeeping troops pass you by, they do not even stop to bat an eye or to provide relief. All their focus is on the gushing oil wells and the affected human populations living in the surrounding area. You held on for as long as you could, but alas you are defeated and your leaves start to give up on you. They fall off one by one and your branches and body are left feeling naked and exposed.
As you live out your final days, you wonder why no one spoke up for you when it came to allocating losses and damages after the invasion. You feel frustrated over humanity’s ignorance and selfishness for allowing your suffocation to go unnoticed. You know your value in creating balance in the life and ecosystem around you. You are resilient to the demanding weather and need little attention from those around you for sustenance. You improve the air quality around you by rejuvenating the dry desert air by providing clean oxygen and you support local wildlife by providing shade to desert creatures seeking refuge from the hot sun.
Do humans not recognise your significance? Do they not see that you too, just as much as them are a living, breathing organism that has every right to live out its natural life on this planet? Evidently no as you bear the brunt of their own species’ eventual demise.
The narrative illustrated above, is one that has been replicated all over the world as conflicts and war are inherently destructive to the natural environment. The effects of war and conflict are not limited solely to human casualties – they also cause major destruction to the environment that often gets ignored within the current legal framework.
The evidence of destruction to the environment during conflict is endless, see the use of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which destroyed entire ecosystems. Or, the destruction of more than seven hundred oil wells in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War. More recent examples include incidents such as the contamination of the Danube river following the bombing of industrial facilities during the conflict in Serbia in 1999, the pollution of groundwater in the Gaza Strip as a result of military operations in 2008, and the deforestation exacerbated by years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These cases are just a few among many which highlight the enduring need to promote and strengthen environmental protection in international humanitarian law.
Although there are legal mechanisms in place which attempt to ensure environmental protection, the current legal mechanisms are anthropocentric. Throughout history, environmental law and international humanitarian law have been utilised as mechanisms to protect the environment for human’s self-gain. These protectionist measures are often put in place in order to better protect human livelihoods because we recognise how important having a healthy environment is for our own sake.
However, evidently there are gaps and flaws within these instruments as the environment continues to bear the brunt of conflict, disaster and human consumption. Additionally, the anthropocentric justifications for environmental protection, such as economical, religious, cultural, for future generations, or for animals, are limited and fail to capture the essence of value inherent to nature.
As we continue to extract, destroy and exploit the natural world around us for our own benefit, we must start recognising the environment’s value in its own right. Our relationship with the environment is one sided and unsustainable, yet we are in no way superior to the natural world around us. We must alter our value system to a more ecocentric one, one in which the environment and natural world is placed at the centre of our value system. We must recognise that humans are not the only living thing with intrinsic value. In simpler words, we need to start protecting the environment as we protect humans.
In order to protect the environment during conflict, a more holistic vision that puts the environment’s needs at the forefront of judicial protection must be emphasised along with a bridge between international environmental law and international humanitarian law to ensure environmental protection during both peacetime and wartime.
Environmental personhood1, may offer a sustainable legal alternative to current anthropocentric legal codes. The idea of environmental personhood was first mentioned by Christopher Stone in his 1972 essay, Should trees have standing?, where he proposed to grant nature rights. Years later, this visionary idea has been put to practice in New Zealand, India, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Canada, among others.
By granting legal personhood to the environment during times of conflict, the environment would no longer be a silent casualty of war. By granting the environment its rights, it would therefore have a voice and locus standi2 to defend itself in court. Many inanimate objects such as ships and corporate entities are already granted special adjudication in times of armed conflict, therefore it should not be seen as outlandish to also apply this practice to the environment. This method of protection would shift away from current remedial practices as seen through the UN Security Council’s Resolution 687 after the Gulf War, and instead shift the international mindset to more preventative protection measures.
This Earth Day, we are reminded of our flawed value system, which has placed the environment as a silent casualty during conflict. Though faced with many ongoing crises, we must prioritise the environmental crisis that we produced. As we look forward and talk of “building back better”, we must come to terms with the fact that our vertical hierarchical structure that leaves the environment in the dust and voiceless is wrong. Perhaps by amending the current legal framework to a more ecocentric one, where the environment is granted human rights, provides a possible step in the right direction.
1 Legal personhood is the legal capacity to bear rights and duties (Tur, 1987).
2 Locus Standi is defined as a right to appear in a court or the right to be heard.
About the author: Anna Ploeg is a second-year MDEV student at the Graduate Institute. A passionate environmentalist and nature enthusiast, this piece is inspired by Anna’s thesis topic. She hopes you find it thought-provoking as she suggests a new method of protecting the environment during times of conflict. You can reach her on LinkedIn.