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Panel 10A: International Humanitarian Law and Environment

Séance 10A: Droit international humanitaire et environnement

November 16, 2014

Errol P. Mendes 

University of Ottawa


Kirsten Stefanik

RSJM Award Recipient


Jérôme Massé

Université Laval


Tohouindji Christian Hessou

Université Laval



Reema Bakshi

B.A Global Politics and Communication Studies



The speakers of this panel focused their discussion on international law concerning people in areas of conflict and the environments in which they live in. Kirsten Stefanik started the discussion off by explaining the importance of incorporating international humanitarian law into the protection of the environment. There is little to no human activity that does not have an impact on the environment, therefore, the environment must be seen by international law as an extension of the people who live within in. The damage that occurs to the environment during armed conflict can be extremely widespread and can have consequences that last for decades. Environmental protections during conflict were only enacted in the aftermath of the defoliation during the Vietnam War, and even then, the threshold for what constitutes the use of such laws is too high. In order to tackle these issues, Stefanik believes the international community should use the intergenerational equity and precautionary principle. This principle states that it is the responsibility of each generation to preserve the inherited natural benefits of the environment for future generations, as environmental impacts of war last long after the conflict itself has ended. Stefanik specifically recognized the example of depleted uranium weapons and how that needs to be addressed with the precautionary principle by the international community. 


The next speaker, Jérôme Massé, emphasized the need for the protection of natural resources during armed conflicts. He did so with four related topics: the links between natural resources and armed conflicts, the legal frameworks surrounding this issue, the impact of war crimes, and prospectives for the future in the context of this problem. During armed conflicts, the media does not focus on environmental damage; however, the impact is significant and should not be ignored. There are two categories or damage, direct as well as indirect. Direct damage is any attacks directly at the environment, such as Agent Orange in Vietnam, while indirect would include the impact of certain weapons used in the area. Another area of concern is the illegal exploitation of natural resources during an armed conflict. After the cold war, armed groups who no longer received funding through the government turned to natural resource exploitation for their funding instead. The same has happened in Cambodia and Angola, pillage is indeed a war crime. Massé noted that the rules of humanitarian law also apply to the environment, as well as the people who live in the environment. We must determine to what extent international law will deal with this, as the current international legal instruments are insufficient. 


Tohouindji Christian Hessou concluded the discussion by speaking about a solution he is currently working on with the African Union (AU). This new instrument is the Kampala Convention, which aims to address the issue of displaced persons during armed conflicts. It was adopted in 2009 and in 2014, has been ratified by 22 states as well as supported by numerous additional signatories to deal with 33 million internally displaced people. Hessou emphasized the need for funding and cooperation by other nation states. The principles within the convention are considered soft law and there was a question regarding the interpretation as to whether displaced persons due to climate change are included. The Kampala convention stipulates that these people are included as migration is recognized as an adaptive measure by the Cancun convention. Conclusively, under the differentiated responsibility principle, Hessou urges for the cooperation between northern and southern countries in these matters. 


All three speakers emphasized the need for collective and sufficient action by the international community moving forward. There also needs to be a realistic threshold put in place by these laws, as the current standard is too high for even the most devastating conflicts to meet. The interpretation of international humanitarian law (considered a soft law) can be beneficial due to the ambiguity, as there is room for individual analysis in order to find the best solution for each situation.

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