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Environmental Damage Resulting From Operation Enduring Freedom: Violations of International Law?

September 2003

Citation: ELR 10668

Author: Robert M. Augst

One of the many devastating, and often overlooked, effects of armed conflict is impact on the environment. An inevitable casualty of military conflict is destruction of land, water, air, and other natural resources. "Since time immemorial, war has visited its excesses on nature, excesses that many fear the Earth can no longer tolerate."1 Throughout history, excessive damage to the environment during armed conflicts has caused devastating human suffering and death, thus threatening human survival.2 However, application of existing international laws governing the methods and means of warfare can help minimize detrimental impacts on the environment, global economic interests, and overt human suffering.

Modern warfare's ability to destroy nature has become increasingly formidable, as "twentieth century technology has brought forth possible destructive forces of unprecedented virulence."3 One commentator, reflecting on the increasing threat of environmental destruction during modern wars, noted that "a curious irony of modern war is that in future armed conflicts, combat casualties may be fewer than those occurring from environmental catastrophe. The majority of likely casualties from a wartime environmental catastrophe are noncombatants, the very persons humanitarian law has long sought to protect."4

Conventional weapons comprise the primary means of warfare utilized in armed conflicts. Modern conventional weapons have the capacity to threaten expansive areas, thus increasing potential threats to the environment.5 The consistently increasing tonnage of bombs being dropped in modern wars brings with it an increased potential to devastate the natural environment.6

In response to these threats, numerous international conventions have been created to protect the environment during armed conflicts. Application of customary principles of war may provide additional environmental protection during armed conflicts.

The author is a student at the University of San Diego School of Law, class of 2004. He thanks Prof. Jorge Vargas and Michael Grehl for their insight, and his family for their support.

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