How Much is Too Much?

Scientists and international experts meet to discuss changes to the ENMOD Treaty, which could curtail environmental warfare.

By Derek Paul | 1992-07-01 12:00:00

Serious arms control efforts are in my experience always dull. I admire our diplomats who go into them with such patience. To prepare Canada's Ambassador for Disarmament, Peggy Mason, for the U.N.'s review this September, the Department of External Affairs sponsored a workshop on the little known but potentially very important ENMOD Treaty. Officially called "The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Other Hostile Uses of Environmental Modification Techniques," the Treaty was signed 15 years ago and now has over 60 signatories. Though it has not yet been rigorously applied, it could forbid such activities as the bombing of oil wells in the sensitive ecosystem of the Gulf.

The 18 participants in this lively symposium included several diplomats with strong backgrounds in international law, some tame and partly tamed scientists, two students, the head of the verification group (DEA) and Peggy Mason, our Ambassador for Disarmament.

The key clause of the ENMOD Treaty is:

"Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to engage in military or other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as a means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party."

The definition of "environmental modification techniques" is, according to the treaty, "any technique for changing-through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes-the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space."

Unfortunately, the intention behind the Treaty was merely to prevent adversaries from deliberately triggering large-scale disasters such as earthquakes, storms, or droughts. As such, the Treaty is rather weak. It is generally understood, though not written into the Treaty, that severe means extremely severe, widespread means 700 square kilometers or more, and long-lasting means about a decade. There is difficulty even in the meaning of the term "natural processes" since, in an environment so manipulated and controlled by humans, few processes are any longer purely natural.

The inclusion of the word "deliberate" furthermore emasculates the Treaty in cases where the action was hostile and deliberate but the environmental damage was incidental or accidental. When this last consideration is added to the others, one has seriously to ask whether there would be even a remote possibility of any State Party to the Treaty ever being held responsible for a hostile action falling under its terms.

The use of the term "Other State Parties" also leaves open the possibility of environmental modification against non-State Parties without restriction under the Treaty: states could use similar techniques against unwanted minority populations within their own borders.

Furthermore the Treaty has no structures of its own for dealing with suspected violations of its terms, such matters being referred directly to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. There is no team or committee to deal with technical or other verification of compliance or to investigate breaches of the Treaty's terms.

The Gulf War and its aftermath seem to have drawn some attention to this rather dormant Treaty but perhaps only because of possible violations by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Possible violations by the forces allied against Iraq have apparently not yet aroused any great concern in Western official circles.

After an historical overview the symposium moved on to an examination of the environmental and legal aspects of the oil spills in the Gulf, and the oil fires that had been set at the end of the war. Despite graphic descriptions of the environmental damage, and though one could pinpoint serious damage both from the fires and the oil spills, the symposium concluded that damage to the Gulf waters had been less serious than had initially been feared.

The ENMOD experts argued that the lighter fractions of the oil evaporated rapidly in the warm water, and the natural currents in the Gulf spread the oil and so prevented the occurrence of high concentration of residue, which would sink. On the legal side we heard doubts that the oil slick and oil fires were breaches of the ENMOD Treaty, (which Iraq had in any case not ratified, though they had signed it). They argued that it was hard to prove that the fires and slicks were intended to do environmental damage, rather than impede or impoverish the victors. This makes one wonder-could it ever be established that an environmental catastrophe was deliberately intended?

Environmental damage to Iraq caused by the alliance during the war was mentioned but not discussed.

The ENMOD Treaty does not state which activities should be verified, and verification consists in assessment after the fact (of, say, a war) rather than verification for weapons with great potential damage to the environment. Nonetheless, a major portion of the symposium was devoted to verification, mostly using the Gulf War as an example and dealing with technical details of verification.

My own paper took the minority view that the ENMOD Treaty should be broadened to remove the deficiencies outlined above, and to-make military organizations subject to environmentally protective controls in peace time.

The case for revising the understandings rests largely on a new consciousness at the highest political levels of the need to protect the environment of the dying Earth. But it is very difficult to change an existing treaty. Perhaps the question should be: de we need a new treaty?

The participants agreed unanimously that the Treaty does apply not only in times of armed conflict, but also in times of so-called peace. Actions such as the manipulation of the water supply of one state by another would thus be offences under the Treaty.

We also agreed that Ambassador Mason should remind the Review Conference of the crucial environmental situation, and the possibility that the Treaty could have a synergistic effect on other, overlapping treaties.

Concerning verification, the Canadian delegation may suggest the establishment of baseline data, from which assessments of modification could be made.

The Canadian delegation also plans to suggest that the Secretary General establish a fact-finding mechanism for suspected Treaty violations, and that the thresholds of applicability of the Treaty be reduced.

If the Review is successful in all of the above, especially in the reduction of thresholds and measures for enforcement, then much will have been achieved.

Derek Paul is a professor of Physics at the University of Toronto, and a member of Science for Peace.

War on the Environment

Destruction of the environment has been an established method of warfare, both defensive and offensive, from ancient times. In environmental terms the costs of modern wars have been staggering; entire ecosystems have been destroyed.

One third of Vietnam is now considered wasteland as the result of war. Farmland is pocked by two-and-a-half-million bomb craters. Forests were defoliatcd by 50 million litres of Agent Orange. Between 1945 and 1982, Vietnam lost over 80% of its original forest cover, according to Greenpeace. The ecological devastation of the country will take generations to repair.

The Gulf War is the most recent example of war's destructive potential. The effects of oil spills and fires on the environment have been severe:

In the words of Ruth Leger Sivard: "The legacies left by the wars of recent decades will stay to haunt generations to come."

This is the second of three excerpts from Taking Stock: The Impact of Militarism on the Environment, written by Kristen Ostling for Science for Peace. Taking Stock can be purchased from .Science for Peace for $3.50. Call 978-3606.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1992

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1992, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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