International lawmakers should adopt a fifth Geneva convention that recognises damage to nature alongside other war crimes, according to an open letter by 24 prominent scientists.
The legal instrument should incorporate wildlife safeguards in conflict regions, including protections for nature reserves, controls on the spread of guns used for hunting and measures to hold military forces to account for damage to the environment, say the signatories to the letter, published in the journal Nature.
The UN international law commission is due to hold a meeting with the aim of building on the 28 principles it has already drawn up to protect the environment in war zones.
Prof Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, one of the signatories to the letter, said the principles were a major step forward and should be expanded to make specific mention of biodiversity, and then adopted across the world.
“The brutal toll of war on the natural world is well documented, destroying the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and driving many species, already under intense pressure, towards extinction,” she said.
“We hope governments around the world will enshrine these protections into international law. This would not only help safeguard threatened species, but would also support rural communities, both during and post-conflict, whose livelihoods are long-term casualties of environmental destruction.”
Work in this field began in the 1990s after the Iraqi military set fire to more than 600 oil wells during a scorched-earth retreat from Kuwait in 1991, but the idea dates back at least to the Vietnam war, when the US military used Agent Orange to clear millions of hectares of forest with dire consequences for human health and wildlife.