Data-driven environmental decision-making and action in armed conflict

Essay by Wim Zwijnenburg: “Our understanding of how severely armed conflicts have impacted natural resources, eco-systems, biodiversity and long-term implications on climate has massively improved over the last decade. Without a doubt, cataclysmic events such as the 1991 Gulf War oil fires contributed to raising awareness on the conflict-environment nexus, and the images of burning wells are engraved into our collective mind. But another more recent, under-examined yet major contributor to this growing cognizance is the digital revolution, which has provided us with a wealth of data and information from conflict-affected countries quickly made available through the internet. With just a few clicks, anyone with a computer or smartphone and a Wi-Fi connection can follow, often in near-real time, events shared through social media in warzones or satellite imagery showing what is unfolding on the ground.

These developments have significantly deepened our understanding of how military activities, both historically and in current conflicts, contribute to environmental damage and can impact the lives and livelihoods of civilians. Geospatial analysis through earth observation (EO) is now widely used to document international humanitarian law (IHL) violations, improve humanitarian response and inform post-conflict assessments.

These new insights on conflict-environment dynamics have driven humanitarian, military and political responses. The latter are essential for the protection of the environment in armed conflict: with knowledge and understanding also comes a responsibility to prevent, mitigate and minimize environmental damage, in line with existing international obligations. Of particular relevance, under international humanitarian law, militaries must take into account incidental environmental damage that is reasonably foreseeable based on an assessment of information from all sources available to them at the relevant time (ICRC Guidelines on the Protection of the Environment, Rule 7Customary IHL Rule 43). Excessive harm is prohibited, and all feasible precautions must be taken to reduce incidental damage (Guidelines Rule 8, Customary IHL Rule 44).

How do we ensure that the data-driven strides forward in understanding conflict-driven environmental damage translate into proper military training and decision-making, humanitarian response and reconstruction efforts? How can this influence behaviour change and improve accountability for military actions and targeting decisions?…(More)”.