The Gender Security Project
Ukraine’s Environment in Time of Conflict: Damage, Data and the Rule of Law
By Harriet Alice Taberner
Photo Credit: A Kharkiv shopping area was attacked during the Russian-Ukrainian war, courtesy of Cristopher rogel blanquet/Shutterstock.com.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it was not only a geopolitical and humanitarian disaster. The conflict has detrimentally impacted the environment.
War and environmental damage are inextricably linked, but the invasion of Ukraine has caused further deterioration in pre-existing environmental issues. “Before 2014, Ukraine was already a country which faced environmental challenges,” observed Ian Anthony, Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Initiative’s European Security Program (SIPRI) at a December 14 webinar titled Beyond War Ecologies: Green Ways forward for Ukraine. “Russia’s first aggression in 2014 exacerbated problems. The second aggression extended some of the problems to other parts of Ukraine and not just to Donbas.”
Experts speaking at the event—which was organized by SIPRI—examined the environmental dimensions of the war and discussed the wider context for restoring the damage done. The researchers and civil society workers on the panel also underlined who should be involved in rebuilding Ukraine in a green and sustainable manner.
The Damage Thus Far
Nickolai Denisov, Deputy Director and Co-Founder of the Zoi Environment Network, informed the audience about the extent of the catastrophe, noting that “30 percent of protected areas [in Ukraine] have been damaged or occupied.”
Nuclear threats to the environment are permanent, but the conflict poses additional risks of radiation. “Every week or two, Russia is shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” said Anna Ackermann, board member for the Center for Environmental Initiatives, Ecoaction.
Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and ranks among the ten largest in the world. Though the plant is built to withstand direct attacks, the risks posed by the current war are naturally potentially deadly. Ackermann stated that “Russian troops have occupied [Zaporizhzhia] since the fourth of March, arranged a military base there, and use the plant to shell Nikopol and Marhanets.”
Ackermann echoed Anthony’s opening point that environmental damages have spread across the country during Russia’s second aggression. She observed that the areas currently most affected by environmental degradation “are not Donetsk and Lugansk, but the regions that are close to the [new] front line.
Yet the environmental harm resulting from this conflict is far from localized. Claire McAllister, Project Lead on SIPRI’s Environment for Peace Initiative, says that it occurs on two different levels. First, there are “the local and community aspects where individual infrastructure is being attacked,” she observed. “And then we have the international impact of the climate consequences of the emissions that are going into this war.” This double impact illustrates just how far-reaching the tendrils of environmental destruction from Russia’s invasion have reached into the country and beyond.
Reconstruction Preparation Should Happen Now
In light of the extent of the damage, Anthony wondered whether action to rebuild and restore Ukraine should already be underway, or whether “nothing useful can be done until the fighting stops.”
Denisov replied that current evidence collection is key. “Information does get lost,” he said. “So if you wait until things are over, if we don’t do it now, we will not be able to recover some things later in terms of knowledge [and] in terms of information that we will need for the later process—be it legal or construction or compensation.”
Doug Weir, Research and Policy Director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, agreed strongly with Denisov’s view. “Data is the foundation upon which much else depends,” he noted. Weir added that the environment is typically underprioritized during and after conflict, and he welcomed growing observations of the impact: “This is the first time journalists have consistently questioned [conflict’s] impact on global emissions.”
Weir also noted that the increased attention has in turn has created space in political fora—such as the European Parliament and the OSCE—for debate on the environmental dimensions of conflict. There is no treaty nor convention providing for post-conflict environmental assistance or recovery, Weir noted, and “historically, initiatives [to do so] have been ad hoc.” The absence of pathways to accomplish this task have left an affected state to deal with the environmental legacy of war in a time of competing priorities.
To avoid an ad hoc approach to Ukraine’s environmental reconstruction, Torbjörn Becker, Director of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics, urged that “once the war is over we should have a plan ready immediately.” He also pointed out that reconstruction is not merely about building Ukraine back to its pre-war state, but about deeply modernizing the country in all aspects of society, including the environment.
The panelists agreed that reconstruction has to start now. “Otherwise we’ll lose lots of time,” said Ackermann.
Accountability and Reparations
Questions of accountability and reparations were another major thread in the discussion. “As a general matter, the goals of legal reparations in international law are twofold: accountability and restoration”, explained Cymie Payne, associate professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Human Ecology. Because it breached the UN Charter, which obliges a state to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any state, Russia is legally liable to restore the damage caused to Ukraine.
Payne also referred the audience to the UN General Assembly’s recently adopted resolution entitled, “Furtherance of Remedy and Reparation for Aggression against Ukraine,” which allows for the recording and assessment of Ukraine’s claims against Russia. This record would provide accountability should compensation become a possibility, and while it would not exclusively deal with environmental damage, this aspect of the invasion would be part of it. “Environmental destruction can itself be considered a war crime under the international criminal courts statute or as ecocide,” added Payne.
Payne noted that the measures currently being proposed for Ukraine envision both “creating a register of damage and….creating a reparations mechanism.” The reparations mechanism has been deferred to the future, so rather than creating a compensation commission now, “with no certainty of being able to actually pay out awards”, that aspect of the process has been set aside for now.
As other speakers at the event mentioned, evidence collection and assessment has been the initial focus of efforts. “Criminal law is very good for accountability, it’s not so good for restoration. Proof is very difficult,” observed Payne. She conceded however, that in Ukraine’s case, there already is adequate evidence of harm, so “how it is collected is of the first importance” to dictate how successful that nation will be in international courts.
Who Should Be Involved?
Once the conflict ends and the data assessing damage is collected, the question of who will actually restore and rebuild Ukraine’s environment is key. Becker held that the reconstruction of Ukraine “should be a coordinated process with a very strong Ukrainian ownership. It should be the Ukrainian government with engagement from local governments, civil society activists and researchers.”
McAllister added that the more individuals and communities are involved and consulted in transition policies, the more effective they will be—and the less conflict they will create. She also observed that municipalities within the country will have to act in a transparent way and have access to information so that they can decide what they want for themselves. Ackermann mentioned that the donors who will bring resources into Ukraine will have their own demands too, and thus widen the net of the players involved in reconstruction.
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Initiative.
This post first appeared on New Security Beat.