Eco-cide: How war weaponizes the environment

The environment has become a casualty of war. International law needs to catch up to this reality and address it.

According to the World Economic Forum, ecocide means “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.” For example, companies dumping pollutants in waterways or cutting down entire forests would qualify.

Though the word is relatively new, a handful of countries already consider it a crime. The Foghorn believes a more specific crime must be articulated: the crime of intentional and malicious destruction of land to render it uninhabitable for the population. In this way, the environment is leveraged as a weapon of warfare.

For example, in Dec. 2023, the Israeli Defense Forces announced that they began pumping seawater into the tunnels under the Gaza strip. Beyond being a danger to any humans in those tunnels – such as Israelis being held by Hamas – an article by Scientific American details the potential environmental devastation of such an act. The seawater could contaminate the aquifer underneath Gaza, which the strip’s millions of residents rely for drinking, agriculture, and sanitization. United Nations (UN) experts warned the action could render the land uninhabitable. Furthermore, though Israeli officials claimed the move was to destroy Hamas’ militant capabilities, many argue the move is just another effort to ethnically cleanse Palestinians in Gaza from the land. If true, pumping seawater into Gaza’s grounds could be a violation of the UN’s Genocide Convention.

A Human Rights Watch investigation in Oct. 2023 found that Israel also dropped white phosphorus on Gaza and parts of southern Lebanon — particularly agricultural areas. White phosphorus is an extremely incendiary chemical that ignites upon making contact with oxygen. When deployed, it is devastating to humans and nature alike. In Lebanon, white phosphorus scorched olive and citrus orchards to the ground and possibly have left the targeted land unusable for agriculture for years. This move violates the right of Lebanese people to an environment that can sustain them. Israel’s use of the chemical weapon has been decried as illegal under international norms. 

However, Israel is not the first country to weaponize the environment against their adversaries. There is a long history of forcing indigenous people off their lands via environmental destruction. 

In the 19th century, the United States carried out a massacre of bison. This slaughter irreparably changed the landscape of the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains. Furthermore, South Dakota State University found that these killings were  organized as a military strategy in the colonial project against the indigenous people to make their land uninhabitable. 

The environment was weaponized during the Civil War, with General William Sherman’s scorched-earth March to the Sea. It pops up in Vietnam, when U.S. troops deployed Agent Orange against rice farmland. 

The war crime of environmental destruction exists — we’ve seen it committed. Even so, international law hasn’t caught on. Though these acts clearly meet the conditions for Genocide under the Convention, which make it illegal to “Deliberately inflict… on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” we haven’t seen world leaders willing to vocalize this crime.

Until we have the specific terminology to refer to the intentional weaponizing of the environment against its inhabitants, we are doomed to watch this crime be perpetrated over and over again. 

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