Make environmental damage a war crime, say scientists

Refugees from South Sudan cross a bridge. The scientists want military forces held to account. Photograph: Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images

Call for new Geneva convention to protect wildlife and nature reserves in conflict regions

International lawmakers should adopt a fifth Geneva convention that recognises damage to nature alongside other war crimes, according to an open letter by 24 prominent scientists.

The legal instrument should incorporate wildlife safeguards in conflict regions, including protections for nature reserves, controls on the spread of guns used for hunting and measures to hold military forces to account for damage to the environment, say the signatories to the letter, published in the journal Nature.

The UN international law commission is due to hold a meeting with the aim of building on the 28 principles it has already drawn up to protect the environment in war zones.

Prof Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, one of the signatories to the letter, said the principles were a major step forward and should be expanded to make specific mention of biodiversity, and then adopted across the world.

“The brutal toll of war on the natural world is well documented, destroying the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and driving many species, already under intense pressure, towards extinction,” she said.

“We hope governments around the world will enshrine these protections into international law. This would not only help safeguard threatened species, but would also support rural communities, both during and post-conflict, whose livelihoods are long-term casualties of environmental destruction.”

Work in this field began in the 1990s after the Iraqi military set fire to more than 600 oil wells during a scorched-earth retreat from Kuwait in 1991, but the idea dates back at least to the Vietnam war, when the US military used Agent Orange to clear millions of hectares of forest with dire consequences for human health and wildlife.

More recently, the effects of conflict have been evident in the Sahara-Sahel region, where collapsing populations of cheetahs, gazelles and other species have been linked to the spread of guns following Libya’s civil war. Battles in Mali and Sudan have resulted in a rise in the number of elephant killings.

José Brito of the University of Porto, another signatory, said: “The impacts of armed conflict are causing additional pressure to imperilled wildlife from the Middle East and north Africa. Global commitment is needed to avoid the likely extinction of emblematic desert fauna over the next decade.”



Stop military conflicts from trashing environment

Sarah M. Durant &
Zoological Society of London, UK.

José C. Brito
University of Porto, Portugal.

PDF version

The United Nations’ International Law Commission is meeting this month to push forward a 2013 programme to protect the environment in regions of armed conflict ( We call on governments to incorporate explicit safeguards for biodiversity, and to use the commission’s recommendations to finally deliver a Fifth Geneva Convention to uphold environmental protection during such confrontations.

Despite calls for a fifth convention two decades ago, military conflict continues to destroy megafauna, push species to extinction and poison water resources (see, for example, J. C. Brito et al. Conserv. Lett.; 2018). The uncontrolled circulation of arms exacerbates the situation, for instance by driving unsustainable hunting of wildlife.

A Fifth Geneva Convention would provide a multilateral treaty that includes legal instruments for site-based protection of crucial natural resources. Companies and governments need to work together to regulate arms transfer (see And the military industry must be held more accountable for the impact of its activities.

Nature 571, 478 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02248-6

Supported by 22 signatories; see supplementary information.

Supplementary Information

  1. List of co-signatories