Calls for a New Geneva Convention for the Environment

G​rowing up watching movies like the Great Escape and TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes, our generation got our first exposure to international law. Prisoners would always be raising disputes with their captors based on “the Geneva Convention”. Readers will realize that the Geneva Conventions set out certain rules for the way wars are conducted.

The Geneva Conventions have a long history. They date back to 1859. Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was visiting the wounded after the Battle of Solferino, part of a war between France and Austria. He was deeply moved by what he saw. He went on to propose that there be an independent relief agency to give humanitarian aid in times of war, and a treaty allowing this agency to work neutrally in war zones.

The result was the Red Cross and the original Geneva Convention of 1864. Henry Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 for these accomplishments. Geneva, and Switzerland in general, have been associated with international law ever since.

The Geneva Conventions have been updated several times over the years. The famous Geneva Conventions that played such a central role in WWII were passed in 1929. There was an update to the way the sick and wounded were to be treated. A second treaty set out rules for the treatment of prisoners of war.

After the horrors of WWII, a new set of Geneva Conventions were passed in 1949. We now have four Geneva Conventions. The First Geneva Convention continues to deal with the treatment of the wounded and sick on land. The Second Geneva Convention deals with wounded, sick and shipwrecked sailors at sea. A Third Geneva Convention addresses Prisoners of War. A Fourth Geneva Convention deals with the protection of civilians, who were so devastated during the Second World War.

The reason we are sharing this history lesson under the Ecology category is that it provides the context for a new proposal for international environmental law. Over the last three decades, it has become clear that the world needs rules to stop the devastation of natural environments resulting from modern warfare. This is nothing new. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote “Those who use weapons will be harmed by them. Where troops have camped only thorn bushes grow. Bad harvests follow in the wake of a great army.”

Since the Viet Nam War, and particularly since the first Gulf War in 1991, there has been a movement to prevent the environmental damage caused by war with a new Fifth Geneva Convention. Three conferences took place in 1991 to discuss the need for such a treaty. The proposal was studied by the UN and the Red Cross but nothing came of it.

The idea has come back into vogue in the last decade or so. This year, activists are pushing to make the Fifth Geneva Convention a reality. At the time of writing, the International Law Commission is meeting (appropriately enough, in Geneva) to talk about ways to protect the environment in war zones.

A group of 24 distinguished scientists have published an open letter in Nature, the world’s leading science journal. The blunt headline reads, “Stop Military Conflicts From Trashing Environment”. The scientists write that “military conflict continues to destroy megafauna, push species to extinction and poison water resources”.Things are even worse than in Lao Tzo’s time!

The letter demands that the International Law Commission set up a Fifth Geneva Convention. It reads, “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. And the military industry must be held more accountable for the impact of its activities.”

Professor Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, is one of the scientists. She told the Guardian,”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.”

Readers who would like to support the idea of a Fifth Geneva Convention can write to the International Law Commission at :
United Nations Headquarters
Attn: Secretary of the International Law Commission
2 United Nations Plaza
323 E. 44th St. Room: DC2-0566
New York, NY 10017



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