University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

On July 28, 2022 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted—by a count of 161 in favor, with 8 abstentions—that living in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right.

Building on the similar declaration by the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in October 2021, the UNGA has reinforced the notion that the growing assaults on human health through environmental hazards are transgressions against the basic rights and freedoms of people. In the Russian war of aggression ongoing in Ukraine, Russia has deprived Ukrainians of this human right. Without specific measures in place, if and when peace is made, Russia will continue to deny Ukrainians this right for several future generations.

Environmental Risk Creation and Activation

The breadth of the environmental degradation and human health hazards Russia has created since its invasion of Ukraine are extensive. Prior to the February 2022 invasion, Russian-backed separatists had already caused extensive environmental risk production in eastern Ukraine, forecasting what has since transpired in the highly industrialized and modified Ukraine west of the Donetsk River. For example, prior to the occupation of eastern Ukraine, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources (MEPNR) actively monitored 71 water sources to track drinking water quality. All of these water sources met national standards as a result of active environmental management programs. Since the occupation, all environmental management programs in occupied areas have been suspended. In tests conducted in 2016, 35 water sources in government-controlled areas remained safe for consumption, while 25 of the 26 wells in government-controlled areas were found to be unsafe due to heavy metal pollution. While this pales in comparison to the risks permeating Ukraine today, it demonstrates the impact of disruption to institutional services and the secondary effects of conflict on the environment.

Today the environmental hazards and corresponding human health risks have grown exponentially. Never before has environmental and public health been as documented as in this conflict. For example, as of March 22, 2023, according to the MEPNR’s EU-sponsored environmental destruction tracker, EcoZagrosa, environmental damage and risks to date include: a total cost of damages of more than $138 billion USD (note: this figure does not include the costs of rebuilding and environmental remediation); more than 400,000 tons of waste generated (from destroyed buildings to burned out cars); more than 280,000 hectares of land deforested; 14,589 tons of oil spilled on land, with another 11,070 spilled on water resources; 432,146 tons of destroyed military equipment; and waste pollution spread over 1,594,840 square meters of land. Since the February 2022 invasion, more than 330,000 explosive and toxic items have been neutralized and either destroyed or stored. Estimates vary, but the cost to rebuild the environmental damage inflicted to date generally exceeds an estimated $50 billion USD. Again, that only covers rebuilding, not the environmental remediation to remove risks like toxins in soil or hazardous waste disposal, and is in addition to the $138 billion described above.

Substantial environmental risks existed across Ukraine prior to the current conflict due to industrialization and decisions related to environmental protection and natural resource management. However, this is similar for most industrialized countries. For example, in the United States there are more than 450,000 identified hazardous pollution sites, a latent risk that poses substantial difficulties if active management was disrupted. In other words, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine highlights the dormant risk that exists today in many “infrastructurally developed” nations, underscoring concerns for future wars or the expansion of this war.

Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict and Forging Sustainable Peace

Recent declarations by the UNGA and UN HRC that a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right are among other timely and relevant international pronouncements regarding the environment, specifically in the context of war. On December 7, 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a new normative framework for how the environment should be protected across the cycle of armed conflicts, which resulted in the creation of the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict (PERAC). The 27 PERAC stipulations, compiled by the UN’s International Law Commission (ILC), outline a combination of binding and non-binding principles for the environment in conflict. Binding principles have a foundation in existing international law (a mixture of international humanitarian law, environmental law, human rights law and other fields of law), while non-binding principles are guiding but not enforceable through a legal mechanism to date. Part of what differentiates PERAC from other environmental protection groups is that its stipulations apply before, during, and after conflict, and to both inter- and intra-state conflict. While an important development, a key constraint for PERAC is that the ILC has initially left implementation up to states as opposed to forming a new treaty or convention, leaving a substantial gap for consistent implementation. Nonetheless, PERAC has substantial implications for the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, especially for shaping how to negotiate and build a peace agreement, but it must be explicitly incorporated to take effect.

International working groups have spent substantial time and resources to proactively shape what a Ukrainian rebuild might look like. Considerations for a “green” or “sustainable” rebuild have centered most of these discussions. In addition, there has been a focus on providing technical assistance necessary to enable a sound and sustainable environmental recovery. Discussions of how to make the environment a key part of any potential peace agreement have been minimal. Unfortunately, a lack of environmental risk inclusion, especially provisions for toxic pollution management and climate change, is common among peace agreements. Some agreements contain environmental provisions; however, unless they are fully implemented and comprehensive, environmental damage will continue. Water access management was included in the Minsk Accords of 2015 (which unsuccessfully sought to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014), yet the agreement was never put into place and did not fully recognize the environmental risks that had been created.

Critical questions about who will ultimately pay and be responsible for environmental damage, and how environmental remediation and management processes and programs will be implemented and monitored, remain unanswered. However, investigating the answers and shaping their presence in peace negotiations is key to their ultimate and effective inclusion. To date, no peace agreement proposal has included specific consideration of environmental provisions despite explicit declarations by Ukraine about their necessity for peace. For a truly “sustainable peace” in Ukraine that addresses the need for restorative and distributive justice, environmental provisions that promote human and planetary health and flourishing must be a central aspect of peace discussions. The legal basis for this exists. The policy work to achieve this must begin in earnest.

Written by Drew Marcantonio (Ph.D. ‘21), an assistant teaching professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.