Last week, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to pay over $US 850 million in compensation to Lebanon for causing a major oil slick during its raid on a power plant in 2006. Four containers were completely burned leading to over 10,000 tons of fuel oil to disperse in the sea. The wind caused the fuel to move north reaching the Syrian coast. The spill has destroyed marine habitats and harmed the livelihoods of fisherman as well as thousands of Lebanese dependent on coastal resources. The resolution was voted in favor by 170 countries, six countries voted against the resolution while three abstained. A General Assembly resolution is not legally binding and it seems unlikely that Israel will voluntarily abide by this when they have violated scores of legally binding Security Council resolutions and broken international law on numerous occasions.
In 1991, after the first Gulf War, the Security Council passed Resolution 687 which set up the legal mechanism to examine, determine and enforce war reparations claims against Iraq. This included environmental damage resulting from the oil fires ignited in Kuwait by the Iraqi military, in which 700 oil wells were affected resulting in 7 continuous months of burning fuel. The fires caused drastic air pollution, black rain, hardened tarcrete on 5% of Kuwait’s surface area, health problems and the death to scores of livestock and animals. For reparation of environmental damage and other losses incurred on various countries, Iraq has been made to pay US$ 236 billion.
Based on the principles of the Rio Declaration of Environment and Development, Iraq and Israel are responsible to pay for environmental damage inflicted by their forces. The declaration requires the polluter to pay environmental damage costs (Principle 16). In addition, Principle 24 of the declaration states “Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.” Unfortunately, states in warfare rarely “respect international law providing protection for the environment of armed conflict.”
In the last Israeli onslaught on Gaza, a sewage treatment plant was destroyed causing great environmental damage to the Strip. Palestinian agricultural land and ancient olive trees are destroyed by Israelis on a regular basis and water facilities are deliberately attacked. Every war causes damages and with the exception of Kuwaiti oil fires, most parties that are responsible for these damages do not pay reparations or are held accountable.
With wars causing a high number of human casualties, destruction of environmental resources always seems to be a secondary priority. However, environmental damage will greatly affect human health and livelihoods both in the short and long term. That is why it is essential to hold countries accountable for all damage caused by their warfare, especially to our natural environment. Countries that have waged wars and caused various types of damages and suffering should not have political cover for their crimes and be held accountable and pay reparations for all damage they have caused.