Activists Deplore the Human Toll and Environmental Devastation from Russia’s Unprovoked War of Aggression in Ukraine

The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, opening an investigation into alleged war crimes, has authority to bring charges for damage to the environment that is widespread, long-term and severe.

People run for cover in front of a burning house during shelling in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. Credit: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

People run for cover in front of a burning house during shelling in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. Credit: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

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Fears over environmental catastrophes are growing among humanitarian experts and environmental organizations as the Russian invasion of Ukraine moves into its second week.  

On Friday, over 1,000 organizations and individuals from more than 75 countries released an open letter expressing their solidarity with the people of Ukraine and voicing concern over the war’s environmental and human toll. 

The environmental impacts include the release of toxic materials into air, water and soil from crumpled buildings, impaired sanitation systems, exploded pipelines and damaged industrial facilities like fuel and chemical storage sites. Experts fear that the fighting could escalate, with Russia targeting Ukraine’s hydroelectric dams, toxic mine tailings dams, and hazardous waste storage sites.

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And, a miscalculation could destabilize one of Ukraine’s 15 active nuclear reactors. Friday morning, Russian forces seized one of those nuclear sites in the Southern part of Ukraine, but a fire reported at the plant was extinguished, and there was no immediate indication that radiation leaked into the atmosphere. 

“In armed conflict, there is so much human suffering that it sometimes seems incongruous to think about environmental concerns,” said Carl Bruch, director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute. “The truth though is that environmental impacts can affect livelihoods, public health and kill people through the spread of disease that would not otherwise have occurred.”

The letter, co-authored by Bruch, was released three days after Karim Khan, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, announced he was opening an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine. While the prosecutor has authority to bring charges for damage to the environment that is widespread, long-term and severe, lawyers say it is unlikely that Khan will use that particular war crime provision because of its high threshold.

Still, the environmental aspect of the war could play a role in the court’s assessment of other crimes. And, experts say the environmental impacts from the war will be long-lasting and difficult to remediate.   

“When you’re talking about releases of hazardous materials, they’re often invisible to the naked eye. So, exposures to noncombatants—children and innocent civilians—could last for years if not decades,” said Carroll Muffet, a co-author of the letter and the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. 

Unfolding Ecological Devastation

Ukraine’s highly industrialized landscape makes the war one of the world’s most dangerous for environmental-related harms, including the possibility of a nuclear disaster.  

The fire reported early Friday at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, began after an attack by Russian troops.

While a radiation leak was not immediately detected, according to international officials, a hit on the site could be catastrophic, experts said. Nickolai Denisov, a deputy director at ZOI Environmental Network, a Swiss nonprofit that provides environmental analysis, said that a Russian seizure of the plant could impair important monitoring systems and hinder personnel access to the plant, heightening the chance of accidents.

“The closer the fighting gets to Zaporizhzhia, the bigger the potential for a miscalculation and the more likely Ukrainian officials who normally protect and service the plant could be injured,” Denisov said.

Late last week, Russian troops took control of the defunct nuclear plant in Chernobyl in Northern Ukraine, sending radioactive dust from the 1986 nuclear accident into the air as heavy machinery moved through the area. The suspension of the dust is dangerous for people in the area, but strong winds could spread it across a region with large concentrations of civilians.

Radioactive material can also be unleashed from attacks on military, industrial and hospital sites. And there are concerns that Russia could be using “depleted uranium munitions,” which can pierce lighter iron and leave highly toxic particles of uranium when deployed.

In the first week of fighting, Russia has targeted military sites including airfields and fuel and ammunition storage sites. The attacks have set off massive fires emitting heavy metals and other toxic materials. Fighting in Ukraine’s Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO protected area, has generated fires that can be seen from space, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, or CEOBS, a U.K.-based nonprofit that monitors and publicizes data on the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts. CEOBS has compiled a list of environmentally sensitive sites that have been attacked in the first few days of the invasion.

Doug Weir, research and policy director at CEOBS, assessing Russian conduct in the conflict in Syria and earlier conflicts, said Russian forces have shown they don’t have a great respect for civilian or environmental protection, leveling entire cities with large populations in order to gain a perceived military advantage.

“It looks like Russia is trying to act as quickly as possible and decapitate the Ukrainian government,” Weir said. “But the longer this goes on, you can see a trajectory where things continue to escalate. Russia is already using indiscriminate explosive force against populated areas, in Ukraine there are many industrial facilities commingled with residential areas, together this increases the risk of environmental emergencies affecting local people and their environment.”

An ICC Investigation

Increasingly, environmentalists have looked to the Hague-based International Criminal Court to address instances of environmental destruction. 

Over the past year, requests have been filed with the court asking its prosecutor to investigate alleged crimes against humanity related to the environment in Cambodia and Brazil. Still, the closest the court has come to addressing environmental issues came in 2009 and 2010 when the prosecutor issued arrest warrants for former Sudanese leader Omar Al Bashir. The warrants  indicated that an element of the genocide charge against Bashir was that he had supported the poisoning of wells in water-scarce areas.

In recent years, a movement led by the nongovernmental organization Stop Ecocide International has lobbied the court’s 123-member nations to make ecocide, roughly widespread environmental destruction, the court’s fifth crime.

Both Russia and Ukraine, along with many other former Soviet bloc countries, have national ecocide laws in their criminal codes. It’s unclear whether the laws have ever been enforced.

For now, the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression, which is waging an illegal war.

While legal experts have charged that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is illegal under international law, the court lacks jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in this case because the court only has jurisdiction over the crime of aggression when both the invading and victim countries are parties to the Rome Statute, the court’s founding treaty which sets its rules.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine are parties to the Rome Statute, but Ukraine has accepted the court’s jurisdiction dating back to 2013, giving the court jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes committed on Ukraine’s territory.

On Monday, Kahn issued a statement indicating his decision to open an investigation, saying he is satisfied that there is a “reasonable basis to believe that both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine.”

The war crimes provision of the Rome Statute includes “Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”

Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law professor and former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said the way the crime is defined, requiring a balancing between military advantage and environmental damage, coupled with the extremely high threshold of “widespread, long-term and severe damage” makes it extremely unlikely the prosecutor’s office will focus on this provision.

Other war crimes within the purview of the court include intentionally attacking civilian populations, civilian objects that are not military objectives, or personnel involved in humanitarian assistance missions.

When there are alleged crimes committed against persons, as there clearly have been in Ukraine, it’s inevitable that the focus of the prosecutor’s office will be on those crimes, Whiting said.  

“It’s not to say that an investigation into environmental crimes won’t happen. If there is military action that causes enough environmental damage, it will be on the table,” he said. “But the bigger story is really that war, even lawfully conducted, has devastating consequences for the environment.”

A History of Destruction

From the United States’ use of defoliants during the Vietnam War to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s burning of Kuwait’s oil fields in 1990, and extensive forest fires from the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, war has caused some of the world’s most damaging environmental destruction. Beyond the effects of battlefield fighting, war is linked to other serious ecological consequences from refugee camps, administrative neglect, the pillaging of natural resources and the incineration of various highly toxic wastes in exposed military “burn pits.”

Bruch, who has studied damage to the environment in armed conflict for over a decade, has identified 35 major armed conflicts since the end of the cold war that have been funded by natural resources including oil, gas, timber and diamonds. The invasion of Ukraine, which is partly funded by Russian oil and gas profits, has followed suit.

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Those resources, which European countries and China are largely dependent on for energy, have been a sticking point that has made those countries more reluctant than they otherwise might have been to condemn Russia’s actions.

“The way that fossil fuels have been weaponized in this invasion, both to fund the Russian military and as an implicit threat by Putin to intimidate European countries that would come to Ukraine’s aid, is a really stark reminder of the pervasive intersections between fossil fuels and violence and conflict around the world,” Muffett said.

He continued: 

“We’re dealing with an illegal and aggressive war that poses a direct and profound threat to human rights and democratic self-governance,” Muffett said. “When you affect the environment where people live, you affect the environment upon which human rights are based.”