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The Protection of the Environment in Armed Conflict: Legal Obligations in the Absence of Specific Rules

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While a general rule of ‘eco-protection’ in armed conflict may be derived from the basic principles of distinction, proportionality, avoidance of unnecessary suffering and humanity, international humanitarian law provides little by way of more specific rules for the protection of the natural environment except for in extreme situations that can rarely be expected to occur. Nevertheless, opinio juris has changed since the adoption of pertinent instruments in 1977. This development needs to be balanced against a still prevailing general reluctance to accept specific ecological obligations and procedures in military operations. Thus a detailed evaluation of planning and decision-making processes appears necessary. Revisiting the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea and the ICRC Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law, this article argues that certain qualifications made in these documents relating to requirements of ‘imperative military necessity’ are to be assessed in the light of their specific implications and should be used with caution. Furthermore, it is suggested that pertinent consequences of the International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on the Effects of Armed Conflicts on Treaties deserve further study. To this end, interdisciplinary case studies should be conducted to support fact-oriented evaluations of military requirements, ecological assessments and political effects post-conflict, rather than insisting on thresholds for legal regulation that already appeared to be escapist decades ago and which may prove counter-productive in the years to come. New activities aimed at protecting the natural environment in armed conflict should focus on a reaffirmation of existing rules and their effective implementation.

Affiliations: 1: Former Director, International Agreements & Policy, Federal Ministry of Defence, Germany


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