PERAC: A Voice for Environment and Indigenous Peoples in Conflict’s Grip

By Elizabeth B. Hessami





The harm that comes to the environment during armed conflict is often permanent, yet the lack of advocates to fight for its protection as they happen creates a deafening stillness. Indeed, this state of affairs has led to the environment to be seen as the “silent victim of war.” Vietnam, Kuwait, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and several more nations have been permanently damaged due to the destruction of the environment during armed conflict which can persist long after hostilities have ceased.


Environmental harm across the conflict lifecycle (before, during, and after)—and the silence surrounding it—has further impacts as well. War’s impact on civilians can cause human displacement, destruction of crops, loss of livelihoods, and global food shortages. As an example, unexploded landmines not only terrorize civilians during and shortly after the conflicts in which they are deployed, but they contaminate agricultural lands for decades after a war is over.


The International Legal Community Acts

The UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Principles on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts (or PERAC Principles) aims to break the silence. The PERAC Principles codify protections not just for the environment, but for many vulnerable peoples across the globe—including those displaced by armed conflict, as well as Indigenous Peoples caught in the crosshairs of war (as well as their lands).


The PERAC Principles offer welcome recognition of state responsibilities to vulnerable civilians caught in the destruction of armed conflict. For instance, Principle 8 (“Human Displacement”) states that “international organizations and other relevant actors should take appropriate measures to prevent and mitigate environmental degradation in areas where persons displaced by armed conflict are located, while providing relief and assistance for such persons and local communities.”


The panel of international lawyers who drafted the new principles also officially defined the concept of “Ecocide” as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” The new definition has also led to a push for ecocide to be added to the list of grave crimes open to prosecution at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.


A Long Journey

The idea of protecting the environment during the conflict lifecycle has gained momentum across the globe in several recent initiatives, but the journey to the adoption of the PERAC Principles has taken more than a decade.


The world began to take notice of the destructive impacts of armed conflict on the environment fifty years ago at the UN Conference on the Human Environment— held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. The impacts of climate change were also addressed by the UNFCCC and in the Paris Agreements.


The PERAC Principles seek to bring together many already existing laws scattered across the legal landscape—from additional protocols to the Geneva Convention to laws set forth in military manuals—and weave them into a new cohesive legal framework. The process was spearheaded by several legal scholars across the globe who were interested in the intersection of the protections available to the environment and civilian communities at risk during armed conflict.


At last, on May 27, the long-awaited 28 Draft Principles (DPs) on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict were formally adopted by the International Law Commission (ILC). The PERAC Principles are nonbinding, and thus will require the support and involvement of governments and civil society to advocate for them. But their adoption is a significant development, especially as they are increasingly implemented into legislation and upheld by courts.


As Fernando Lusa Bordin, John Thornely Fellow in Law at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University, observes that “ILC documents such as the PERAC Principles are more and more being interpreted by Tribunals, Courts, and Governments as ‘reflections of customary international law’.”


Covering the Full Cycle

Many previous protections offered by international law were limited to damage which occurred during active armed conflict. So the temporal scope of the PERAC Principles—which covers times before, during, and after armed conflict— represents a novel approach. Extending protections to periods before conflicts erupt, for instance, offers incentives to engage in measures such as preventative diplomacy to avoid wars and the damage they wreak on the environment and populations in the region. The PERAC Principles also encourage the natural resource governance measures—such as planning and conflict mediation over potential natural resources disputes—that are critical to avoiding conflict.


But the useful expansion of international law offered by the PERAC Principles extends beyond the temporal cycle of conflict. Take Principle 5 (“Protection of the environment of Indigenous Peoples”), which is an important step in recognizing rights already set forth in documents such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The new principles reiterate the obligation of states to protect Indigenous Peoples’ lands during armed conflict, and even goes further to require consultation and cooperation with Indigenous People on “Remedial Measures.”


Codifying and strengthening protections for the environment during armed conflict is not a luxury. “When war is waged, people go hungry,” said António Guterres, Secretary‑General of the United Nations. He observed that 60 percent of regions experiencing food insecurity are also beset by conflict. And when conflicts deliberately target the environment, already sensitive areas are made that much more insecure by these attacks.


Ukraine as a Case Study

The war in Ukraine offers an opportunity to examine how the PERAC Principles might be applicable to ongoing conflict. Many sensitive areas in Ukraine’s landscape have been destroyed (or are threatened) by Russian forces. And while the immediate zone of conflict may seem to be regional, the ripples of this war and the destruction it has created—particularly in agricultural lands and grain storage facilities, will impact global food supplies.


Indeed, recent Russian attacks on “agricultural equipment, farms and grain supplies through shelling and looting” indicate a very deliberate targeting of Ukraine’s agricultural sector—which is one of the biggest exporters of grain in the world. Already food insecure nations in the Middle East and Africa may face potential famine conditions due to this aspect of the conflict.


The environmental damage from Russia’s invasion extends past the Ukrainian bread basket. Sensitive areas such as Ukraine’s Donbas Region were already battling groundwater contamination from flooded mines before the conflict began this March. The Bucha region has experienced not only devastating civilian casualties in the conflict, but the decimation of its once verdant forests. How many decades it will take to restore this environment is unknown, but what is certain now is that where people once enjoyed a forest walk, there are now buried mines, unexploded bombs, and contamination.


Is the damage caused to the environment in Ukraine permanent? This is hard to know at present but certainly many areas will take decades to recover—if they can at all. But the new protections offered by the PERAC Principles offer a new lens in which to view the relationship between conflict, the environment and vulnerable peoples. They also may play a role in encouraging states to engage in the prevention of armed conflict—before it’s too late.


Elizabeth B. Hessami, J.D., LL.M. (Environmental Law), is a licensed attorney and Faculty Lecturer of International Environmental Policy and Environmental and Natural Resources Security for The Johns Hopkins University. She has served as a Visiting Attorney for the Environmental Law Institute (remote) for nearly a decade. Sources: Pew Research Center; BBC; International Committee of the Red Cross; UN International Law Commission; Open Global Rights; The International and Comparative Law Quarterly; UN; France 24/The Observers; Conflict and Environment Observatory; CNN Photo Credit: A photographer stands in front of a bombed residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine, courtesy of Pavlovska Yevheniia/Shutterstock.com.




This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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