Environmental cost of war highlighted

Monday saw the passing of an annual day set aside by the international community to consider the environmental impact of armed conflicts, in a week where the world's wars continue to devastate ecosystems.

Since 2001, November 6 has been the UN’s International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict and, while the title may not trip off the tongue, its aims are crystal clear.

The General Assembly decided to designate one day a year to the problem of how wars, and modern day weaponry in particular, continue to have an environmental impact long after the shooting has stopped.

Neither does the pollution and damage to natural resources and ecosystems respect national borders and often countries which were not involved in the original conflict have to deal with the environmental aftermath, sometimes for several generations to come.

While the arms industry may be starting to take steps to create greener weapons, with the media relishing the idea of lead-free bullets, compostable landmines and their ilk (see related story), it will be many years before such technologies are adopted as standard.

Against the backdrop of this international awareness day, Green politicians and campaigners have been pushing for action to force Israel to take responsibility for environmental damage caused by its soldiers in Lebanon and on its own soil.

The Middle Eastern branch of Friends of the Earth is calling on the Israeli government to invite the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to assess the impact of this summer’s war with Hezbollah.

In September, Lebanon invited UNEP inspectors to assess the damage on its side of the border, including the effects of a serious oil slick caused by the bombing of a coastal power station.

Now, says FoE, it is time for Israel to follow suit.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoE, said: “Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apparently doesn’t want people to know all the consequences of a senseless war. The Israeli government must stop dragging its feet and finally ask UNEP to send a team from its Post-Conflict Branch to northern Israel and assess the environmental damage there.

“The environmental impacts of the Hezbollah-Israel war need to be investigated by a professional and politically independent team to remove emotions and politics from the issue of environmental protection.”

Fouad Hamdan, also an FoE director, said such a step could have social benefits as well as highlighting the environmental cost of war.

“Documenting the consequences of war on the shared marine environment of Lebanon and Israel would highlight the loss to both nations,” said Hamdan.

“This would hopefully dissuade Hezbollah and Israel from recommencing the fighting, which could happen any day since the political causes of the war are still unresolved.”

Tel Aviv has also come under fire from Green MEP Caroline Lucas, who has written to EU heads of state and the European Commission asking for an investigation into allegations that the Israeli Air Force used experimental uranium-based weapons designed to cause extremely hot shrapnel blasts during the fighting in Lebanon.

“The use of novel weapons incapable of distinguishing between military and civilian targets is a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions,” claimed Ms Lucas.

“And it is vital that the EU use all means at its disposal, including the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement which gives special access to Israeli producers to EU markets, to bring pressure to bear on Israel to stop using these weapons immediately.”

The Israeli Defence Forces are denying using new uranium weapons and twenty UNEP experts, working with Lebanese environmentalists, have spent two weeks gathering evidence of their use from various samples found at centres of fierce recent fighting, in particular in the South Lebanese villages of Khiam and At Tiri.

The experts warn that particles from the explosions were long-lived in the environment and could be inhaled into the lungs, with ‘significant’ health effects on civilians. Their findings are due to be published in December.

Dr Chris Busby, of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, reported in October that preliminary soil samples taken from south Lebanese villages showed elevated radiation signatures not compatible with the more widespread depleted uranium weapons known to be in use by Israel.

Sam Bond

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