Environmental damage as a war crime — can Russia be punished for ecocide?

Losses among military personnel and civilians, destroyed residential buildings, schools, and kindergartens, damaged critical infrastructure objects — these are the consequences of Russian aggression that Ukrainians unfortunately witness every day.

However, the aggressor country inflicts irreparable damage to another silent victim of this war — the surrounding natural environment.

Burnt forests, polluted and contaminated rivers, lakes, and soils with heavy metals, thousands of killed animals and destroyed plants, mined and occupied territories of nature reserves — these are the results of unjustified Russian aggression, which Ukrainian nature suffers from.

Environmental degradation and destruction as a result of war not only harms nature itself but also exacerbates the loss of food and water, destroying people’s livelihoods.

Thus, environmental damage threatens not only the well-being, health and survival of the local population but also increases their vulnerability for decades.

According to official data, over 2,000 cases of environmental damage have been identified in Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale war. These are only the crimes that have been documented in the controlled and liberated territories.

According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine, there is another extremely complex problem that needs to be addressed — the waste of destruction, which, according to recent estimates, has already reached approximately 12 million tons.

The State Environmental Inspection and commissions established by military administrations are responsible for documenting these crimes against nature under Ukrainian law. The effective work of these bodies will be crucial in holding the aggressor country accountable.

What mechanisms can be used to hold Russia accountable?

Unfortunately, there is no institution in the world specifically dedicated to the judicial prosecution of military crimes against the environment. Therefore, special international mechanisms have been established for this purpose.

One such mechanism could be a special tribunal and a commission for reparations for environmental damage, similar to the case of the Iraq-Kuwait war (where the Iraqi army blew up oil wells that burned for 8 months).

For example, the International Criminal Court (ICC) recognizes environmental damage as a war crime (Article 8 of the Rome Statute), which refers to “intentionally launching an attack, knowing that such attack will cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment that would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage” as a military crime.

Additionally, the Criminal Code of Ukraine contains provisions related to crimes against the environment. Article 441 of the Criminal Code defines “ecocide” as the mass destruction of flora or fauna, pollution of the atmosphere or water resources, and other actions that have caused or may cause an ecological catastrophe.

Сriminal proceedings should be registered according to Article 441 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, which will later serve as the basis for the judicial persecution of the Russian Federation.

Currently, it is unknown which specific mechanism will be applied to Russia in the context of holding them accountable for environmental crimes.

See also: How does the war in Ukraine affect the environment and deepen the food crisis?

It is also worth remembering that the full picture of the damage to the environment will only be clear after the victory when the occupied territories of Ukraine are liberated and specialists can enter there to assess the inflicted losses.

The increasing global attention to crimes against the environment

The importance of protecting the natural environment during and after armed conflicts is increasingly recognized on the world stage.

Previous international humanitarian rules provided limited protection to the environment in the context of international armed conflicts. Therefore, experts from the International Law Commission began developing new mechanisms to protect nature during and after the conclusion of an armed conflict/war.

The result of this years-long work was a document that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2022, namely the 27 legal principles for the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts (PERAC — Principles of the environment in relation to armed conflicts).

The PERAC principles reflect a number of important aspects. For example, they call on governments and international organizations to cooperate in conducting “post-conflict” assessments and remediation of environmental damage, including in areas where the remnants of war pose a threat to public health and have a profound long-term impact on the security and means of human existence.

The new principles are more expansive and cover important topics such as indigenous peoples’ rights, the use of natural resources, corporate behavior in conflict zones, and the effects of war in maritime areas. They do so by bringing together elements of environmental, human rights and security law, as well as existing practice by states and international organizations.

During the lengthy process of finalizing the document, there were disagreements among states regarding what should be included. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom strongly objected to anything that could hinder their use of nuclear weapons as a defensive strategy. China resisted attempts to apply the principles to non-international armed conflicts.

Without exaggeration, it can be stated that the war in Ukraine has influenced the process and speed of the adoption of the PERAC principles by the United Nations General Assembly. The contamination of soil and water bodies, destruction of plant and animal life, and the consequences of industrial facility destruction have pushed the world to seek new ways to address the issue of preserving and restoring the environment during and after war.

Among the 27 principles, there are some on which it is worth focusing particular attention in the process of creating tangible mechanisms for obtaining compensation for crimes against nature.

For example, the ninth principle of PERAC states that “an internationally wrongful act by a State, in relation to an armed conflict, that causes damage to the environment entails the international responsibility of that State, which is under an obligation to make full reparation for such damage, including damage to the environment in and of itself.”

That is, the ninth principle may be the key for Ukraine in the future on the way to punishing Russia.

The new PERAC principles are not legally binding on states, but it is hoped that they will be implemented through national legislation and international treaties (for example, the Geneva Convention) and applied specifically in the prosecution of Russia for crimes against the environment in Ukraine.

Documenting crimes against the environment caused by war

It is worth considering the possibility of creating a separate registry of environmental damage, similar to the registry of damaged and destroyed property resulting from the war.

Such a registry should be administered based on evidence collected by the authorized body (State Environmental Inspectorate), with translations into the official languages of the United Nations (excluding the language of the aggressor country — Russia). The data should be continuously transmitted to the International Criminal Court as a basis of evidence, which will help calculate the losses and consequences for the natural environment resulting from Russian aggression.

In the summer of 2022, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Ukraine created a resource called EcoZagroza (threat), a useful platform for documenting and monitoring environmental violations.

By logging in through the Diia platform, citizens can upload information about environmental crimes within the territory of Ukraine.

See also: Blowing up the Kakhovka Dam: Russia’s announced crime

However, there is one “but”. The information contained there pertains not only to war crimes but also to other environmental offenses. It may include instances such as pollution of water bodies by industrial discharges, improper waste management, or unauthorized deforestation.

The register of war crimes against the environment should be a separate object of evidence in the process of bringing Russia to justice.

In other words, crimes against the environment that resulted from the war cannot be identical to administrative offenses committed by Ukrainian individuals or legal entities on the territory of Ukraine.

These are fundamentally different cases that should not be combined with a single resource.

What can the Ukrainian Parliament do?

The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (Parliament) can actively intervene in the process of drawing attention to crimes against the environment.

Using tools such as resolutions addressed to other parliaments and international organizations, the Parliament can request condemnation of Russia’s actions in destroying the Ukrainian ecosystem.

Such a mechanism has already been employed when the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine appealed to the United Nations, European Union institutions, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the parliaments and governments of its member states to condemn the act of nuclear terrorism at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

We should also not forget about the groups of inter-parliamentary relations with similar groups of parliaments of other countries formed by current members of the Ukrainian Parliament.

Thanks to the activities of such inter-parliamentary groups and individual MPs, the issue of recognizing the damage caused to the Ukrainian environment as a result of Russian aggression and further prosecution for such crimes can be promoted at the international level.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it particularly apparent how much the environment suffers from armed conflict.

Like most consequences of war, environmental damage lasts much longer than the armed conflict itself. For example, toxic remnants of explosives can lead to water and soil contamination, the effects of which will be felt for decades.

The security and livelihood of people depend on a clean and healthy environment. Therefore, it is crucial to protect ecosystems during armed conflicts as well as in times of peace. Not to mention, it is essential to avoid such conflicts altogether.

Likely, the principles for the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, will serve as an effective international mechanism to hold Russia accountable for the damage caused to the Ukrainian environment, which is an integral part of the global ecosystem.

Of course, significant efforts are required to fully utilize the existing legal mechanisms to hold Russia accountable for crimes against the environment. This includes diplomatic efforts by the highest political leadership of the state, which have already been successfully implemented through sanction lists and prisoner exchanges. It also involves consistent and diligent work by law enforcement officials and environmental inspectors in accurately assessing the damage caused to the environment.

The meeting between the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, and the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, in Kyiv in March of this year was a testimony to the beginning of holding Russia accountable for crimes against the environment.

Undoubtedly, raising the issue of damage to the Ukrainian environment to such a level will encourage further cooperation in the creation of a specialized mechanism for prosecuting Russia for ecological war crimes.

Originally posted by Mykola Turyk on LB. ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Systematizing chaos: how the system of control over the reconstruction of war-damaged facilities will work

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