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Time for a Green Geneva Convention

The health and security of our environment should be a fundamental part of a long-lasting peace policy.
 
 
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War is humanity's deadliest pastime. From 500 BC to AD 2003 more than 1,000 major wars have burned their way into the pages of recorded history. As many as 258 million people died in the 165 wars that ravaged the Twentieth Century. But for each of the 17 million soldiers who fell in WWII, two innocent civilians also died. Today, the major victims of modern warfare (75 percent) are civilians.

But there is another overlooked casualty of war -- the environment. In 2002, United Nations Resolution 564 created the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. The first anniversary of the UN's "Green Day Against War" falls on Nov. 6, 2003.

UN Environment Program Executive Director Klaus Toefer explains the need for this special day of reflection: "The environment and its natural resources are all too often forgotten as the long-term casualty of war.... Environmental security... must no longer be viewed as a luxury but needs to be seen as a fundamental part of a long-lasting peace policy."

The world still recoils at the images of the 1991 Gulf War, when lakes of oil poisoned land and sea and the soot from 700 flaming wells darkened the skies. Thousands of seabirds, sea mammals and fish died in the aftermath.

War exterminates wildlife, disrupts habitats, contaminates the land, air and water, destroys villages, farmland, and urban infrastructure. In Vietnam, the US dropped 25 million bombs and 19 million gallons of chemical weapons on forests and fields. In 1991, the US dropped 5,000 tons of bombs on Iraq, destroying 9,000 homes. In 2003, the US hit Iraq with 28,000 rockets, bombs and missiles, many containing potentially toxic depleted uranium.

To put it simply: war pollutes. Bombs, missiles, shells and bullets flood the environment with lead, nitrates, nitrites, hydrocarbons, phosphorous, radioactive debris, corrosive and toxic heavy metals. Military exercises and military bases also damage and despoil the environment. With 247,000 soldiers stationed at 752 bases in 130 countries, the Pentagon is the world's biggest military polluter.

Toepfer notes that "tens of millions of explosives remain scattered around the world in former conflict areas like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia and on the African Continent." Unexploded landmines and clusterbombs prevent farmers from returning to their land, frequently forcing them to clear-cut forests to plant new crops.

The world's armies burn nearly 2 billion barrels of oil annually and generate as much as 10 percent of global air pollution. The 1991 Gulf War produced an estimated 80,000 tons of climate-warming gases.

While international clashes are devastating, even internal conflicts can wreak environmental calamity. Civil war has eliminated 90 percent of the wildlife in Angola's national parks and reserves and has triggered the felling of an estimated five million trees in Sri Lanka.

The environmental damage is not confined to foreign lands. Unexploded ordnance now lies scattered over more than 15 million acres in the US. The US is home to more than 14,000 contaminated military sites, many located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has wisely remarked: "Poverty, environmental degradation and despair are destroyers of people, of societies, of nations. This unholy trinity can destabilize countries, even entire regions".

Global spending on the military now stands at around $16.2 billion a week. The cost of one $1.5 billion Trident submarine could immunize the world's children against six deadly diseases and prevent 1 million deaths a year.

As Klaus Toepfer notes: "a polluted environment, contaminated water supplies and sullied land and air, are not a long term recipe for stability." With this in mind, Toepfer has issued a call for the creation of a "Green Geneva Convention."

"We have the Geneva Conventions, aimed at safeguarding the rights of prisoners and civilians," Toepfer argues, "We need similar safeguards for the environment."

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.