Conflicts impede effective environmental governance, including the implementation of international agreements intended to reduce harm from toxics.
Since 1989, the Basel Convention, and later the Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, have played an important role in international efforts to minimise the health and environmental threats from chemicals and hazardous wastes. However, their implementation relies heavily on the ability of states to ensure robust domestic environmental governance. Armed conflicts and insecurity commonly disrupt the capacity of states to adequately respond to the pollution threats that may arise from them, and to oversee or implement environmental regulations. This blog examines how conflicts interact with the conventions, and how they challenge their goals of protecting human and environmental health.
The need for global progress on the sound management of chemicals throughout their lifecycles has been repeatedly endorsed by states for more than three decades, with governments backing a target date of 2020 for the goal as far back as 1992. Since then, the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions (BRS) have been complemented by the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and the Mercury Convention, as well as regional agreements such as the Waigani and Bamako conventions.
It is a crowded ecosystem but with the WHO estimating that a quarter of all deaths annually are attributable to environmental risk factors – including but not restricted to pollution – the objectives of these and other agreements remain vital. Unsurprisingly, addressing the health and environmental impact of chemicals and wastes also features in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as expressed by SDG 3.9 which, by 2030, seeks to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals, and air, water and soil pollution and contamination. A huge challenge, given current global rates of consumption and emissions, and small wonder then that the overarching theme of this year’s third meeting of the UN Environment Assembly will be pollution.
Direct and indirect sources of pollution from conflicts
The direct forms of pollution from conflicts are increasingly well understood, even if documentation remains patchy. This includes threats resulting from damaged industrial and urban infrastructure and the legacy of weapons’ use, or pollution caused by poorly managed population displacement. Contamination may also be caused by the loss or damage to water supply, sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, or as a result of scorched earth tactics targeting natural resources. We are also developing a clearer understanding of the indirect polluting effects of conflicts, for example where communities are forced into utilising environmentally harmful coping strategies to survive.
Yet there is one long-lasting indirect legacy of conflicts and insecurity that is often overlooked, including in the discussions over what are primarily peacetime agreements on the management of chemicals and wastes: the impact of conflicts on environmental governance. Disruption to national institutions, and with it the effective implementation of what are in many cases highly complex and technical legislative frameworks, ensures that the threats from pre-existing and new pollution risks are amplified by armed conflicts and insecurity. This applies to the implementation of all multi-lateral environmental agreements to some degree, and serves to demonstrate that war’s impact on the environment goes well beyond the immediate forms of damage seen during active hostilities.
The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions
The oldest and most well-established of the three agreements is the Basel Convention, which entered into force in 1992 and currently has 186 state parties. It deals with the management, disposal and transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and aims to ensure that transboundary movements of hazardous wastes are kept to a minimum, and that they are managed in an environmentally sound manner. It also promotes the principle that such wastes be disposed of close to their source of generation, and minimised at source. An amendment passed in 1995, and which has been ratified by 89 states, aims to ban all exports of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries.
The Rotterdam Convention entered into force in 2004 and has 156 state parties. The convention formalised the procedure of Prior Informed Consent, which creates obligations for exporters to notify importers about the hazards of listed chemicals, and a framework that provides for their explicit consent over whether to accept their importation. In essence, Rotterdam seeks to promote shared responsibility and cooperation among parties, and contribute to the environmentally sound use of hazardous chemicals by facilitating the exchange of information about their characteristics.
Finally, the Stockholm Convention also entered into force in 2004, and now has 181 parties. Its focus is on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), organic compounds that are persistent in the environment and which can therefore accumulate to dangerous levels in organisms. The convention initially focused on three groups of POPs containing 12 compounds: pesticides such as DDT, industrial chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and unintentionally produced POPs (or U-POPs) – dioxins and furans; toxic compounds often produced through inefficient burning. A further 10 substances have been added since 2009. Stockholm seeks to regulate and eliminate the production and use of POPs, encourage their replacement – whilst preventing the development of new POPs – and ensure the sound management and disposal of existing stocks. During the 2008-09 review conferences for the three conventions, and reflecting their common objectives, it was decided to merge their secretariats to encourage more effective working and administrative practices.
In addition to their core objectives – reducing the human and environmental toll from hazardous chemicals – the three instruments all have in common a high reliance on the effective functioning of national authorities, constructive support from the private sector, technical assistance from their secretariats and international organisations, and the external scrutiny of civil society. These four factors are all vital for their effective implementation but all four can be impacted by armed conflicts and insecurity.
Even in the absence of conflicts, many less developed countries already struggle to implement the conventions effectively, a point noted in the 2018-21 technical assistance plan for their implementation, which observed that:
“The effective implementation of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions continues to be hampered by the lack of capacity in many developing country Parties and Parties with economies in transition.”
Like many multilateral environmental agreements, Stockholm and Rotterdam do not specifically address the question of their applicability during armed conflicts. Basel does, but only insofar as excluding liability from incidents caused as a result of hostilities.
How armed conflicts impact the conventions
Assessing how conflicts interact with the implementation of the conventions can be done by reviewing the submissions from state parties, which are published as part of their national reporting on implementation. Further information is available via the international organisations that support the conventions, such as UNEP, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which finances many BRS implementation projects. However such information is fragmentary, as the conventions do not explicitly address the links between implementation and armed conflicts.
But before considering implementation, it is necessary to review some of the ways through which conflicts contribute to the generation of pollution that falls under the auspices of the BRS conventions. For example, Lebanon’s 2006 Stockholm implementation plan highlighted the threat from PCB spills from parts of its electricity network damaged by aerial bombing and shelling during conflicts between 1975 and 2000. This included two power plants and four substations, one of which – Bsalim – was damaged on four separate occasions. PCBs were a common constituent of insulating oils used in electricity facilities and, while their use has been phased out, stocks remain in many countries, and work to address the risks they posed in Lebanon later formed part of a GEF-funded project in 2010.
Conflicts commonly produce environmental impacts beyond their borders. Jordan, and other countries in the region, have seen a large influx of refugees from the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And a GEF project on the management of POPs, the reduction in U-POPs and the sound management of hospital and electronic wastes, which was proposed for Jordan in 2015, highlighted the pressure that was being placed on the country through it adding an additional 2.5m people to its population of 7m. The project identified that Jordan’s historical progress on sound environmental management was facing a significant challenge, particularly in regard to waste management and the reduction of U-POPs. In a further example of a transboundary impact, the Syrian conflict has also constrained Lebanon’s ability to restrict the smuggling of POP pesticides across its border with Syria.
Another source of BRS relevant wastes are military operations themselves. The absence of a functioning governmental authority during conflicts should place an obligation on the militaries of states party to the conflict, and to the relevant agreements, to manage such wastes in accordance with them. For the Kosovo conflict, Germany entered into an agreement with KFOR/NATO to accept the importation of Basel-relevant hazardous wastes generated by the operations. Similarly, the UK accepted 180 tonnes of nerve agent precursors from Syria in 2014. This was done without a bilateral agreement with Syria and utilised an EU exemption for Basel, with the UK Ministry of Defence handling documentation, and the precursors were destroyed at Veolia’s Ellesmere Port facility in the UK. Work to process Syria’s 1,300 tonne chemical weapon stockpile also involved facilities in Finland, Germany and the United States, as well as the US ship the Cape Ray. The precise extent to which these kinds of agreements are now used for operational military wastes is unclear and warrants further research.
As the Basel Convention requires approval from all states involved in the movement of wastes – the originator, transit and destination countries – this can pose problems for transboundary movements in times of conflict. For example the US had great difficulty in using private contractors to export wastes from operations in Bosnia in the mid-90s. At the time, Bosnia was not a Basel signatory and Croatia initially refused permission for transit. Until an agreement was finally reached, military vehicles were used for shipments as they were exempt from the regulations.
Beyond increasing the generation of wastes or pollution, conflicts can also create more immediate practical barriers for interaction with the conventions. The Central African Republic (CAR), which had reported delays in the preparation of its National Implementation Plan (NIP) due to the conflict in 2013, would later see insecurity also interrupting a review of a manual about the implementation of the Basel Convention. In 2014, the CAR’s national focal point for the conventions wrote to the Basel secretariat to apologise for delays in the review process:
“Our reactions reach you slightly behind because the country is still plunged into violence through the city of Bangui for several days. We did not manage to work well because weapons whistle permanently and so, everyone stayed at home. Calm returned a little this morning.”
Weak or absent governance delays convention membership
For a number of countries, the existence of an armed conflict has led to sometimes lengthy delays in joining the conventions. Afghanistan signed the Basel Convention in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2013 that it was able to ratify the agreement – joining Rotterdam and Stockholm at the same time. This had been made possible by UN Environment’s assistance, from 2003 onwards, with the development of the Afghan National Environmental Protection Agency, and work is still ongoing to ensure that Afghanistan can fulfil its obligations under all three agreements.
As another country that has endured decades of conflict, Iraq has also been slow to ratify, and is still not party to the Rotterdam Convention. It ratified Basel in 2011 and Stockholm in 2016, a delay of 19 and 12 years respectively. Iraq is now the focus of a special programme that seeks to accelerate its implementation of the three agreements, as well as the Mercury Convention. The programme aims to deliver the institutional structure, capacities and legislative frameworks necessary for implementation.
The end of Liberia’s second civil war allowed it to join all three conventions in 2004, having delayed its joining of the Basel Convention and other international agreements on pollution such as the MARPOL Convention. One early priority for technical assistance under the Basel Convention was a capacity building programme for the handling of hazardous wastes at Liberia’s ports, followed in 2012 with a Basel project on e-waste.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was also slow to join the three conventions and, because of the complex institutional structures created by the Dayton Accords, faces a particular challenge in implementing both the BRS, and other environmental agreements. As its 2015 NIP for the Stockholm Convention notes:
“Environmental management was not a priority in the process of post-war economic recovery in BiH and it is a problem in the entire country due to the non-optimal institutional, strategic and legal framework. There is still no policy on environmental protection at the state level which would resolve priorities in terms of the environment.”
Its experience amply demonstrates that the political compromises necessary for peace agreements can have lasting consequences for environmental governance.
Conflicts complicate the creation of national implementation plans
Upon accession, NIPs are the primary process for implementing the three conventions. Creating these plans requires access to historical records on the location and disposition of contaminated sites or facilities and, where possible, historical data on pollution problems. The collapse of governance during conflicts, the emergence of new hazards which may be undocumented, and difficulties related to accessing affected areas almost invariably complicate the process of devising NIPs, as the following examples suggest.
For Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NIP for the Stockholm Convention, some limited data were available thanks to a study on selected POPs (PCBs, PCDDs/Fs, OCPs) from “waste materials generated by warfare in former Yugoslavia”. This had a particular focus on industrial facilities and military installations damaged during the conflict. However the NIP also found that record keeping across the country was patchy. In addition, the group tasked with developing an inventory of PCBs found that between 1991-1995, a great deal of power generating equipment was damaged, and in many cases identification plates had also been removed. A number of respondents interviewed by the group reported that oil from transformers, including oil containing PCBs, had been used for diesel vehicles.
Liberia’s Stockholm NIP was published in 2006 and again had a particular focus on electrical transformers and former military sites damaged during its two civil wars. As it was only two years after the second conflict had ended, it found that national regulatory and control mechanisms were still under-developed. Key national issues for POPs included the burning of plastic bags, the lack of a coherent national POPs policy, uncontrolled discharges of chemical and hazardous wastes, and waste management issues caused by the wide-scale displacement of rural communities to urban areas during the war.
Common to other countries, electricity sites with PCB contaminated oil were a major concern for Liberia, although many still remained inaccessible due to the security situation. Of the 3-4,000 transformers nationwide, the NIP found that:
“…840 – 1,400 transformers are available for further scrutiny. Some of their locations may constitute contaminated sites, since many transformers were targeted during the war and pierced by bullets or shrapnel.”
As with Bosnia, it was suggested that many may have been cannibalised for parts during the war. Liberia also lacked the analytical capacity to be able to properly assess sites, and monitor emissions, with its NIP noting that:
“Liberia, with numerous activities and releases into the environment has no hazardous waste management and monitoring capabilities, facilities or services.”
The DRC joined Basel in 1994, and Rotterdam and Stockholm in 2005. A 2006 GEF-funded project to prepare the DRC for the implementation of its obligations under the Stockholm Convention found that the conflict had caused a decline in all public institutions, in particular their capacity for action on the ground and ability to coordinate nationally. Awareness of the hazards of POPs was low, with the recovery and recycling of PCB oils thought to be widespread, leading:
“…to draining and [a] black market for used transformer oils. There are unfortunate reports of transformer oils being used in cooking and baking. If true, this practice will increase the human exposure to PCBs dramatically.”
Because of the conflict and its lack of development, the DRC’s national capacity for environmental monitoring and assessment was almost entirely absent, ensuring that: “No particular attention or investigations has been done for studying the soil or site contamination by POPs chemicals.” In addition to PCBs there were also concerns about current and former pesticide storage facilities, but with poor record-keeping of stocks, it was impossible to determine the extent of the hazard. The lack of assessment capacity, and functioning analytical laboratories, were compounded by a weak domestic legal framework, with a decision over a key plank of the DRC’s environmental law having been delayed “for some years” in parliament.
Conflicts can block implementation of plans
For those states able to join the BRS conventions, and after national work is completed to scope the challenge of implementing them, the next step is to implement their obligations. But once again, armed conflicts and instability can hamper implementing projects, which can be both national and regional in scope. Successful implementation plans require that domestic institutional responsibilities are clearly set out, that internal and external funding is available, and that technical assistance can be provided by the international community.
One such regional project, the MedPartnership, which cost some $46.5m and was initiated in 2009, addressed POPs as part of a wider regional programme to reduce pollution in and around the Mediterranean. A closing evaluation found that its implementation was directly affected by the Arab Spring and ensuing conflicts in Libya and Syria:
“Activities planned for Libya, Tunisia, and particularly Syria were affected by political instability and security concerns and some had to be cancelled or relocated to other participating countries.”
The conflict in Syria also affected a Basel-related sub-project on the environmentally sound management and disposal of lead batteries, and both the Syrian and Libyan conflicts impacted other components of the overall project, including an assessment of the health of coastal aquifers.
Conflicts can cause or create the conditions for environmental emergencies
One final example of the interactions between situations of armed conflict and the conventions are environmental emergencies. These may be caused directly by conflicts – for example through damage to an industrial facility – or result from or be facilitated by weakened environmental governance as a result of a conflict. One notorious example of the latter is that of Côte d’Ivoire, where in 2006 highly toxic wastes originating from a Panamanian flagged ship the Probo Koala, were dumped at various sites around Abidjan.
The incident, which is thought to have killed 17, and left tens of thousands requiring medical treatment, caused widespread protests leading to the collapse of the government. A UN Environment assessment subsequently found that it had served to emphasise:
“…the poor state of national and municipal waste management systems in Côte d’Ivoire, including systems for dealing with hazardous waste, and the effect this lack of proper management systems can have on stability in the post-conflict environment.”
Dealing with the incident required an expansion of the Basel Convention’s emergency trust fund and the engagement of national and regional authorities and UN agencies; with a follow-up project seeking to strengthen custom systems and governance to ensure that it could not be repeated.
A decade on and standing agreements are in place for tackling emergencies of this type. These bind the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Environment Unit with the Basel Secretariat and are intended to allow the provision of technical expertise and emergency response capacity. It is a structure that works reasonably well but which is obviously dependent on its proper resourcing and effective coordination; and with the parties involved being able to access affected areas – which may not always be possible in situations of armed conflict. Furthermore, these emergency responses are just the first phase in what may be lengthy responses to environmental harm: for example UN Environment returned to Côte d’Ivoire last year for further assessments of the dump sites contaminated in 2006.
The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions are technically and bureaucratically complex. Their compliance systems are underdeveloped, and for many developing countries and countries with economies in transition, implementing their obligations continues to be challenging. In spite of this, they are firmly established in the international chemical management architecture and have contributed to reductions in waste dumping and the use and stockpiling of a range of toxics.
However, it is clear from the experiences of many conflict-affected states that insecurity and conflict present a huge challenge to their successful implementation. Beyond the immediate pollution threats caused by how and where conflicts are fought, the legacy of the resulting collapse of environmental governance impedes the delivery of the conventions’ core objectives.
Whether it’s delaying ratification and action on toxics, or disrupting access to affected areas or research programmes; hampering record-keeping on pollutants or the transboundary consequences of displacement; creating constitutional structures in peace agreements that restrict national governance, or the inability to take part in national and regional implementation projects; or even triggering environmental emergencies and hampering effective response: armed conflicts have a long-lasting legacy for all international chemical regulations that rely on effective environmental governance.
These and other interactions – such as the disruption to health care systems, should serve as a reminder that the health and environmental consequences of conflict pollution extend far beyond the immediate forms of contamination caused by weapons or tactics. For many countries, minimising these direct and indirect consequences of warfare will be vital for the attainment of SDG 3, in turn requiring that polluting incidents are minimised during conflicts, and that long-term technical assistance and resources are available to affected states to rebuild governance and to address pollution threats.
Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project @detoxconflict