Press Releases

    2 November 2004

    No Conflict Is too Remote to Affect Local Environment, Secretary-General Says in Message to Mark International Day to Prevent Exploitation

    NEW YORK, 1 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s message on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflicts to be observed on 6 November:

    As long as wars have existed, the environment and natural resources have been their silent victims.  Crops have been torched, water wells polluted, forests cut down, soils poisoned and animals killed.  The objectives have varied:  to provide a strategic advantage, to demoralize local populations, to subdue resistance or simply to feed soldiers.  But the consequences, even if unintended, have been uniformly devastating.  We have seen outright physical destruction, including the release of pollutants and hazardous substances.  We have seen social disruption, such as the creation of refugee populations which in turn put increased pressure on resources.  And since most conflicts are being waged in poor countries, we have seen economic devastation inflicted on vulnerable populations least able to cope with harm to their environment and setbacks to their development.

    During the 1991 Gulf War, Kuwait’s oil wells were deliberately set on fire, and millions of gallons of crude oil were discharged in waterways.  In Cambodia, 35 per cent of the forest cover was destroyed during two decades of civil war and unrest. During the conflict in Angola, the wildlife population dropped by 90 per cent.  And during the Viet Nam War, millions of tons of Agent Orange were sprayed over that country’s jungles, stripping vast areas of vegetation, some of them still unsuitable, even today, for agricultural use.

    There are a number of legal protections for the environment during wartime.  They include the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (1976), the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993) and the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel Mines (1997).  In addition, the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions prohibits “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”, and states that “care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage”.  What is acutely needed are enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with these conventions.  Indeed, we may well need to strengthen the “green” chapter of international humanitarian law rules.

    On a practical level, the United Nations is responding more and more actively when war-related environmental damage is occurring, so as to assess damage, clean up contamination and help countries build up their capacity for post-conflict environmental management.  The United Nations Environment Programme has played such a role in the Balkans and is currently active in Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and the occupied Palestinian territory.

    Modern warfare techniques and armaments continue to develop rapidly, with potentially catastrophic environmental consequences.  At the same time, too many conflicts are left to fester along for years and even decades, slowly chipping away at natural resources.  On this International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflicts, let us recognize that no war or conflict is remote enough not to affect our environment, wherever we live.  And let us pledge to do our part in fighting against this common yet oft-forgotten threat to our lives and well-being.

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