A woman stands in front of discarded military scrap in Iraq. 06/01/2003. Photo credit: Philip Reynaers/Greenpeace
A woman stands in front of discarded military scrap in Iraq. 06/01/2003.

Photo credit: Philip Reynaers/Greenpeace

By Aneaka Kellay, Researcher, Toxic Remnants of War Project

The ongoing Syrian conflict and return to instability in Iraq this week are stark reminders of war’s devastating effects. While the immediate and shocking consequences of conflict, such as the killing of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, rightly gain widespread attention, the less visible legacy of conflict pollutants can also have long-lasting consequences for civilian health.

What sort of environment will Syrian families be working, living, and playing in, in one, two or ten year’s time? Will the polluted post-conflict environment affect the health of women, children and the elderly? How long will it be before a reasonable standard of environmental governance returns to towns and cities of Syria? Will the degraded medical infrastructure have systems in place to monitor and deal with the health problems resulting from exposure to conflict pollution?

In Syria, as in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq, pulverised building materials are likely to be contaminated with hazardous substance like asbestos, lead paint and cement dust. Military-specific materials such as the explosives RDX and TNT, or the latter’s common carcinogenic contaminant DNT, as well as heavy metal particulates from firearms such as lead, mercury and tungsten may contaminate the rubble leftover from the use of heavy weapons in populated areas. The safe disposal of waste after war is a key post-conflict issue though one that often lacks visibility or prioritisation and which poses significant logistical and technical challenges.

Reports of ill health as a result of conflict have emerged in Iraq and Gaza[1]. Linking the reported increasing prevalence of congenital birth defects and cancers in Iraq to conflict pollution has been contentious. However common sense dictates that an increased presence of harmful substances in unregulated and chaotic post-conflict environments will lead to civilian exposure and potential health problems. Nevertheless, the effects of conflict pollution on civilian health are at present under-researched.

Highly polluted post-conflict environments deepen and lengthen the effects of conflict on civilians. Ill health and the psycho-social impact of contamination have impacted communities for decades after the cessation of hostilities. The Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians suffering from the effects of Agent Orange more than four decades after the end of the Vietnam War are sadly illustrative of this.

The weakness of International Humanitarian Law[2] (IHL) in respect to environmental protection and the lack of visibility of most TRW at the international level mean that there are often few opportunities for claiming compensation or requesting assistance.[3] This means affected states are often left to manage TRW with little support.[4] Post-conflict states often have few resources, resources which are typically degraded by the conflict itself, as was the case in Gaza after the 2008-9 Israeli bombardment. Contamination problems can also be exacerbated by weak governance and unstable institutions and a lack of governance and oversight can lead to the poor management of TRW, causing or deepening pollution problems. The management of military scrap metal in Iraq is illustrative of this, as well as the use of private contractors in military base management and waste disposal.

While there has been recent optimism at the potential for international environmental law (IEL) and human rights law (HRL) to inform greater protection for both the environment and civilians during conflict, the lack of clarity on exactly how IEL treaties and human rights are applicable during conflict alongside IHL, as well as the limitations of current systems of implementation and enforcement, can prevent these bodies of law from making a meaningful difference on the ground.

Returning to the question posed in the title of this blog: who pays for toxic remnants of war? Which party bears the financial burden and if compensation for TRW is unavailable, are the costs of TRW paid by other means? The current weakness of international law allows parties to a conflict to remain unaccountable, thus in a majority of cases, and in variance to established peacetime norms, the polluter does not pay. The limited visibility of the majority of TRW means that affected states are given insufficient assistance from the international community. Competing concerns and capacity issues within post-conflict states mean the most TRW are left unresolved. This leaves civilians, particularly those with least political and economic power, and those who are most vulnerable, such as young children, mothers, and the elderly and disabled, bearing the costs of TRW through ill health. In any effort to create peaceful and just societies this dynamic has to change.

What can be done? This is an issue that cuts across the disarmament, environment, human rights and development agendas. There is a need to work on multiple fronts: improving the recording of environmental harm and increasing awareness of incidents, pushing for legislation that will prevent TRW, strengthening rapid response teams to assess environmental emergencies, developing national capacity for the environmental monitoring of TRW hotspots, providing assistance to TRW casualties and conducting environmental clean-up. However the first step is to build knowledge within civil society, see the links within our separate briefs, and find ways to work in mutually beneficial ways.

This is a complex story and one that the TRWP’s upcoming report Pollution Politics explores in more detail. To find out more and have a chance to discuss these issues, come along to the launch of Pollution Politics on Wednesday July 2nd 2014 at Amnesty International UK, 18:30 pm.


[1] See Box 2 Blue babies in the Gaza Strip, p 57 in UNEP Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip. http://www.unep.org/pdf/dmb/unep_gaza_ea.pdf [2] This issue has been explored in detail by a number of scholars including: Karen Hulme in: War torn environment: Interpreting the legal threshold (2004) http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=hKoXIleS8g4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=karen+hulme+war+torn&ots=pRC1jztB_U&sig=o61mHMjuYDS40zpNrD81VWJLbbw#v=onepage&q=karen%20hulme%20war%20torn&f=false, and Michael Bothe, et al. in: International law protecting the environment during armed conflict: gaps and opportunities (2010) http://www.961.ch/eng/assets/files/review/2010/irrc-879-bothe-bruch-diamond-jensen.pdf [3] There have been some instances of high profile incidents such as the Israeli bombing of Jiyyeh Power station in Lebanon in 2006, and the setting of oil well fires in Kuwait by retreating Iraqi forces, which have gained international attention and assistance. However, there are numerous incidents of toxic harm during conflicts that are less visible, though arguable more pervasive of which little attention is paid. See Pollution Politics for more discussion. [4] UNEP’s post-conflict and disaster management branch has been significant in their efforts to undertake post-conflict environmental assessments and provide support to affected states. However the level of support UNEP are able to give is limited by their mandate and donor support. The scale of the problems often outweighs assistance given.