As Ukrainian forensic investigators uncover evidence of war crimes killings, experts of another type are working to document the effects of Russia’s war on the environment.
The Ukrainian ministry responsible for environmental protection stated in a briefing last week that it had destroyed military equipment and ammunition and exploded missiles. This polluted the soil and groundwater with chemicals including heavy metals.
Nickolai Denisov is the deputy director of Zoi Environmental Network in Geneva. He is part of a team that maps incidents of war-related disruption or damage.
The group reported 3,300 incidents in 600 settlements by the end of April. This includes cities, towns, and villages.[The situation]Denisov said that this is a serious matter. The impact on people is the most important. There are also impacts on the environment.
Over the years, Ukraine has been plagued by environmental pollution.
The former Soviet nation has 15 nuclear reactors, over 1,600 chemical, petroleum, and pharmaceutical enterprises, as well as 148 coalmines.
It was also the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter and a major global producer of soft commodities such as sunflower oil and maize.
According to Ukraines State Emergency Service (UES), since the Russian invasion began on February 24, and ended April 27, 79.169 explosive devices, 1,955 airplane bombs, 567.4kg of explosives, and 1,955 aircraft blasts have been used in an area of 13,473 ha (33.293 acres).
The cost of rebuilding cities in Ukraine could reach $600bn according to estimates by the Kyiv Central Government. However, the State Environmental Inspectorate claims that the damage caused solely by soil pollution is $77m.
Denisov stated that the scale and risk of the war is so great it is unlike anything we have seen in Europe over many years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his officials, could be prosecuted. However crimes related to environment damage have rarely been brought to court.
Experts say the conflict in Ukraine could change that and signal the beginning of stronger legislation about the links between conflict and environmental harm and human suffering.
Environmental damage mapping
It is a good first step to ensuring accountability by documenting and mapping environmental crimes.
Ukrainian and international organisations including Zoi Environmental Network, Ecoaction, CEOBS, PAX, Environment-People-Law, Truth Hounds and OSCE, to name a few are using open source information, satellite images, government bulletins and media reports to piece together evidence.
Natalia Gozak from Kyiv-based Ecoaction told Al Jazeera 200 incidents were fact-checked by the nonprofit that could amount to environmental crimes.
The information will be given to a governmental group that includes military experts, the ministry of environment, and prosecutors. Their goal is to prepare a case for international court.
Other organizations have indicated that the United Nations Environment Programme will also be receiving their data.
Gozak stated that the idea is to seek reparations and that Ukraine must take certain steps to achieve this.
Once the conflict is over, mapping will help you determine where to focus.
Gozak stated that Ukraine is also creating new legislation that establishes a common framework to economic valuation of damage to natural resources.
In 2014, Putin launched an offensive on Ukraine’s coal and steel producing region the Donbas. He used artillery to bombard the fertile area of land and paralysed many aspects environmental protection.
This included the management and operation of coalmines. The pumping was stopped because it was harmful to toxic water that was filling mine shafts and polluting ground.
The UN estimated that $30m was required for high-priority environmental rehabilitation of Donbas, with an additional $40m needed to restore water supply.
Putin recently RefocusedRussia’s national invasion of this region, home to approximately 4,500 chemical, mining, and metallurgical enterprises, was devastating.
Gozak stated, “We believe the problem to be widespread and severe now.”
Russia and Belarus share the Dnieper River, which is also affected by contaminated water.
A nuclear country’s war is a risk to anyone downwind of radioactive releases.
Zois Denisov stated that Russia is already suffering collateral damage.
Fierce forest firesRecent violence broke out in Siberia. Nearly 300 incidents were reported in the Omsk area last month. However, Russia’s ability to extinguish them is very limited because it is focusing on the west of the country. This is where oil depots, and other installations, were targets in retaliatory Ukrainian strikes, he said.
Bring the evidence to court
Reparations for damage to the environment are rare.
One notable exception is the 1990-91 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. The UN determined that Iraq was responsible after the Gulf War.
Russia, a UN Security Council veto-wielding country, is unlikely receive similar treatment, Carroll Muffett of the Washington, DC-based Centre for International Environmental Law said to Al Jazeera.
Russia does not recognize the International Criminal Court as the right place to prosecute war crime and other grave offences.
We have seen this repeatedly in the decades that have followed conflicts of this nature. Muffett cited the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and Balkan Conflicts in the 1990s as examples.
It is possible that environmental crimes will be part of a larger trial addressing Russian war crimes.
Kyiv will have to provide baseline data in order for Ukraine to prove environmental damage caused by Russian military actions.
Ecoactions Gozak reports that monitoring has been done in protected areas as well as on agricultural land.
She said that chemical facilities can be more complicated as groundwater and soil quality controls are often not available.
In addition, the Geneva Convention as well other international legislation regarding environmental damage in armed war are cautious when it comes to military necessity and proportionality.
Muffett said that it was difficult to prove that military action was necessary and that the damage was punishable.
But if the invasion and occupation of Ukraine is inherently and demonstrably illegal war then what is a legitimate objective military becomes fundamentally different. [irrelevant]He said so.
New safeguards for environment
The UN’s decade-old project to improve legal protection of the environment in relation of armed conflicts has met with strong opposition from member countries. However, the invasion of Ukraine highlights the danger that war poses to the environment and the weaknesses of existing legal frameworks to protect it.
This is about setting up new normative standards regarding how the environment should continue to be protected, Doug Weir (policy director at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory) told Al Jazeera.
The UN International Law Commission (ILC), which has been working since 2013, is known as PERAC Protection of Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts. It has identified 28 draft principles to clarify the legal framework on a wide range of topics, including environmental protection during occupation and post-conflict assessments to conduct in hostility to state accountability.
PERAC is due to close this year, with a vote in the UN General Assembly.
Weir stated that this was the largest deal in legal conflict and environment law since the 1970s. It came in the wake Vietnam war.
Although the principles are not binding and will be inapplicable retroactively to Ukraine they may encourage persistent objectors like the United States and France to embrace the principles to ensure better protection in future conflict situations.
Weir stated that what we are seeing now is a long-overdue recognition of the importance of the environment.