THE MILITARY’S IMPACT ON THE
A NEGLECTED ASPECT OF THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT DEBATE
A Briefing Paper for States and Non-Governmental Organisations
International Peace Bureau, Geneva
Photo: Sebastian Salgado, Kuwait, 1991
"We must set up a cooperative relationship with the earth, not one of dominance, for it is ultimately
the gift of life that we pass on to our children and the generations to follow".
Rosalie Bertell, Planet Earth -- The Latest Weapon of War
(Dr Bertell was awarded the IPB's Sean MacBride Peace Prize in 2001)
1. The links between the military, the environment, and human security: An overview
2. Military stresses on the environment
3. The military dimension in international discussions on environment and development
4. Other initiatives important to addressing the military dimension
5. What can be done to ensure that the military-environment dimension gets addressed?
Appendix A: Nuclear Disarmament: background information
Appendix B: Resources
A better scientific understanding of the environment, and public pressure for higher
standards of governance and stewardship, have led to some important successes in
reducing the man-made impacts on our air, water and land that are endangering human
security. But the stresses that the military places on the environment have not been
receiving the same level of attention. The upcoming World Summit on Sustainable
Development ("Rio+10", Johannesburg, August 2002) opens up an important opportunity
to bring the military dimension into the ongoing dialogues on development, the
environment and human security. This briefing paper is intended as a resource to help
integrate the military dimension into our collective efforts to confront the serious
challenges of sustainable development.
Note: while attempting a fairly broad analysis of the problem and efforts to tackle it, this text does
not attempt to deal with all aspects of the military-environment relationship. In particular,
questions of conflicts over natural resources and the impact of militarism on human health are
largely outside the scope of the paper.
1. The Links Between the Military, the Environment, and Human Security: An
Step by step, awareness is growing that each nation’s quest for security must move
beyond the traditional dependency on military security; real security requires a holistic,
cooperative approach that addresses all the inter-linked threats to humanity. This includes
the threats that attempts at military security have themselves created.
"Human security" is an evolving concept, and a dynamic process. It starts with the
recognition that all human beings are linked in inter-dependence with each other and with
the natural environment. Human security draws upon our increasing understandings of
the physical environment -- the webs of life in nature, and upon principles of good
governance, such as transparency, accountability, human rights, civil society participation,
and international standard-setting and cooperation -- principles that sustain the webs of
life in the human environment. One of the milestones in the development of our
understanding has been the Brundtland Report of 1987, which established the concept of
sustainable development, and which underlined the notion that national and international
security must transcend the traditional reliance on military power. Another milestone is
the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report of 1998, which popularized
the idea of “human security”.
Some of the major threats to human security come from the deterioration of the physical
environment. Air and water pollution, the depletion of underground water tables,
deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and above all climate change, are having
profound effects on many societies today, and, as each injury to the environment
accumulates and interacts with all the other injuries, the welfare of future generations is
Military activities place a number of stresses on the physical environment, but their
contribution to over-all environmental deterioration has not received its share of attention.
There are several reasons for this. One is that the military is not seen as an ‘industry’, yet
in many ways it behaves like one. Another is that states operate a double standard: they
are not willing to subject their armed forces to the levels of transparency and
accountability that are required of other governmental or civil society actors.
Important changes are taking place. As the campaign to ban landmines and the decision of
the International Court of Justice on nuclear weapons have shown, society not only can,
but must, take responsibility for decisions that have traditionally been left to the military.
No single actor, whether it be a state or an institution of government or civil society, can
be permitted to jeopardize the interests of humanity. No institution can be above the law.
States are entitled to take legitimate measures to ensure the security of their citizens, but
what is “legitimate” cannot be a unilateral decision. All who are affected should have a
role to play in these judgments, through appropriate channels in the political process and
in the community of States.
2. Military Stresses on the Environment
Military activity affects the physical environment in the following direct ways:
-- pollution of the air, land, and water in peacetime
-- the immediate and long-term effects of armed conflict
-- militarisation of outer space
-- nuclear weapons development and production
-- land use
In addition we must consider the issue of indirect effects via diversion of resources.
a. Pollution of the air, land, and water in peacetime
Consider the following facts:
The world's military forces are responsible for the release of more than two thirds of CFC-
113 into the ozone layer. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet armed forces produced
enormous amounts of hazardous wastes. As a result of naval accidents there are at least 50
nuclear warheads and 11 nuclear reactors littering the ocean floor. There are more nuclear
reactors at sea than on land. The Pentagon generates five times more toxins than the five
major US chemical companies combined. The US military is the largest single source of US
environmental pollution. The cost of clean-up of military related sites is estimated to be
upwards of $500 billion. This is in addition to the bill for clean-up of former Soviet
military activities – a bill still largely unpaid.
Because of the close links between the nuclear arms industry and civil nuclear power
generation, the nuclear weapons industry is partly responsible for the environmental
contamination caused by the whole nuclear chain: from uranium mining and milling;
through transport of ‘yellowcake’, MOX and other nuclear materials (including the risks
inherent in transportation by road, rail and on the high seas, and those associated with
nuclear-powered vessels); fabrication of fuel rods; reprocessing and fast-breeder reactors;
and the problems of storage of nuclear waste over millennia. Such sites as Chelyabinsk, La
Hague, Yucca Mountain, Hanford, Sellafield and Murmansk are likely to be condemned in
perpetuity on account of the huge amounts of nuclear materials they contain. The total
cost of dismantling nuclear weapons and their production facilities is not easy to calculate,
precisely because of the close inter-connection with nuclear energy production. However
it must surely approach the overall costs of making them in the first place. Some estimates
of this reach $3.5 trillion for the US alone. (Center for Defense Information).
The military must also recognise its share of responsibility for climate change – via
greenhouse gases emissions, especially from aircraft. And yet it is precisely the military
whose activities have been excluded from the scope of the Kyoto Treaty.
b. Immediate and long-term impacts of armed conflict
Some of the most well-known post-war stresses on the environment (combined with
serious dangers to human safety and health) are:
* Radiation from nuclear explosions (Hiroshima, Nagasaki)
* Agricultural degradation due to landmines (many African and Asian countries)
* Unexploded "remnants of war" (UXO) impeding agriculture, eg cluster bombs (Kosovo,
* Chemical agents and burning of oil wells (Gulf War)
A list of the more severe environmental impact of actual conflicts would need to also
include the following:
Scorched-earth tactics. It has been military practice down the ages for retreating
armies to lay waste to enemy territory. Historical examples include Napoleon’s
retreat from Moscow, and the Nazis in the Soviet Union and in Northern Norway.
Use of "Agent Orange" and other US defoliants during the Vietnam War which
rendered about a third of Vietnam a wasteland. The Vietnamese farming landscape
is defaced by 2.5 million craters. In all the wars between 1945 and 1982, Vietnam
lost over 80% of its original forest cover. The ecological devastation of the country
will take generations to repair.
The Gulf War had major ecological consequences. Four to eight million barrels of
oil were spilled into the sea. 460 miles of coastline have suffered massive damage
due to oil spills and burning wells. Crude oil may have long-term chronic effects
that will eventually lead to coral death. The fuel-air bombs used to clear minefields
pulverised topsoil and destroyed all nearby vegetation. The use of ammunition
with depleted uranium led to radiation effects. The coalition forces left huge
quantities of refuse, toxic materials and 45 - 54 million gallons of sewage in sand
pits. The Gulf War "syndrome" experienced by allied troops is believed to be partly
a by-product of toxic materials.
During the NATO military action in Kosovo and the Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia (FRY), severe environmental damage resulted from air attacks. Burning
oil refineries leaked oil products and chemicals into the River Danube. Chemical
plants were bombed, spreading extremely dangerous substances into the
environment. Biodiversity sites were hit in the FRY. Increased levels of
radioactivity resulted from the use of depleted uranium ammunition. There was
fear that a nuclear power plant might be bombed, which would have spread
radioactive substances. The Kosovo conflict was the first where the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) made a post-conflict environmental assessment.
A UNEP Task Force concluded that pollution at four localities in Serbia was serious
and posed a threat to human health.
In Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel landmines litter the fields
and mountain passes. There is evidence that the use of ammunition containing
depleted uranium in the current conflict with Al-Qaeda may also have led to
environmental contamination and long-term health hazards.
The special dangers of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)
The radiation effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the subsequent atmospheric
nuclear tests and the Chernobyl accident give an indication of the scale of environmental
damage that would ensue from even a limited use of nuclear weapons. The damage to the
earth's ecosystem would be severe, and the economic and human impact huge. If a limited
nuclear attack, or exchange, were to lead to a general nuclear war, life on earth would be
endangered. While few studies appear to have been done to update the ‘nuclear winter’
thesis of the 1980s (which predicted severe loss of agricultural production due to the
blocking out of sunlight over a significant period), there is little reason to assume it has
become invalid simply with the demise of the Cold War and some reductions in arsenals.
Yet, as Senator Douglas Roche said in his address on 8 April 2002 to the Middle Powers
Initiative Strategy Consultation at the UN in New York:
"..Unfortunately, nuclear weapons and the subject of the Non-Proliferation Treaty seem to have
fallen off the humanitarian priority list. Even here at the UN - where core work is done on the
integrated agenda for human security - the focus is on, as one official put it to me, "actual and
immediately potential crises". It is as if Hiroshima and Nagasaki are but blips in history and the
fact that 5,000 nuclear weapons are still kept today on high-alert status, meaning they could be
fired on 15 minutes' notice, is of little concern".
This apathy in the face of the nuclear threat was given a jolt recently when the
confrontation between India and Pakistan, nuclear armed states, over Kashmir threatened
to lead to a nuclear war between them. This danger poses a terrible threat, not just to those
countries and their immediate neighbours, but also to the world's ecosystem if a nuclear
war were to occur. India and Pakistan crossed the threshold into nuclear power status in
May 1998, when India carried out a series of underground tests that were closely followed
by similar Pakistani ones. Both were in desert areas, but it seems clear that there was
environmental and human damage. The World Nuclear Test Victims' Federation has
reported thousands of cases of cancer from local residents, many related to radiation and
particularly the consumption of the milk products of affected cows. The wider damage
from the nuclear weapons programmes of India and Pakistan is the huge opportunity cost
of wasted sums which could have been used to protect the environment and address the
poverty of millions in the Sub-continent.
The use of chemical or biological WMD, while not so catastrophic, would nevertheless
cause severe environmental damage in addition to their devastating effects on humans.
Chemical and biological weapons (CBW) are capable of causing casualties among living
beings - people, other animals and plants - on a giant scale. US field trials carried out in
the Pacific Ocean 35 years ago showed that a single-seater aircraft could establish disease-
causing dosages of microbial aerosol at sea level over thousands, maybe even tens of
thousands, of square kilometres. There is no reason why urban areas of like size would not
be just as vulnerable to chemical weapons - which work through toxicity rather than
CBW have been used in some conflicts (with serious environmental impact), such as
mustard gas in the First World War, BW tests by Japanese troops in China in the 1930s,
and CW used during the Iran/Iraq war and by Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi Kurds.
There have also been a number of unproven allegations and controversies such as the
apparent use of ‘Yellow Rain’ by Soviet-backed Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia.
So far however, CBW has not been used on a large enough scale to cause severe
environmental damage, and International Conventions (1972 and 1993) ban their use. The
risk is not only that some states could resort to chemical and biological WMD, but also that
terrorists could use CBW agents in attacks similar to those of 11 September. Any such
attacks would have incalculable environmental impacts beyond the immediate vicinity of
the attacks, and in addition to fearsome public health consequences.
There are reports that the US is now developing fungi and viruses that will kill opium
poppy, marijuana, and coca plants. These are designed to have a high plant kill rate and to
be deliberately sprayed in crop eradication programmes. The US is pressuring some
countries with such illicit crops to use these pathogenic fungi to forcibly eradicate them.
Countries reportedly approached in this context include Colombia and Burma, which
have large areas of coca and/or poppy cultivation and are combat zones where rebel
movements are fighting against the national government. This strategy carries great
dangers of undermining international prohibitions on biological weapons, presenting risks
to human health and posing dangers to the environment. Like any other biological agent,
the fungi would be very difficult to control after release: they are infectious agents that
spread uncontrollably beyond the target area.
Unfortunately even the destruction of CBW can have serious effects on the environment,
as evidenced by the bitter controversy over destruction of thousands of nerve gas and
other deadly chemical agents on the US-owned Pacific island of Johnston Atoll in the
1990s (the JACADS programme, completed November 2000). But this work has to be done
and investment in new destruction technologies to protect both health and the
environment must surely be a priority in an era in which CBW nightmare scenarios are
becoming more frequent both in the media and in scientific discourse.
c. Militarisation of outer space
Outer Space is already militarised, with missile systems dependent on guidance from
satellites. The US Missile Defense (MD) Programme now under way (with the 1972 Anti
Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty restraining ABMs scuppered in June 1992 at US insistence)
will step up this process. This is in pursuit of "full spectrum" US military domination. The
danger of contamination of space through conventional or nuclear explosions in warfare
there, if militarization of space continues, will be real. There is an urgent need to negotiate
a treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The US refuses
however any pre-commitment to a Treaty in discussions at the Conference on
Disarmament (CD) in Geneva.
d. Nuclear weapons development and production
Nuclear weapons development, manufacturing, storage, transport, disposal etc all place
strains on the environment and impact human health. Radioactive fallout from the now-
banned atmospheric nuclear tests is estimated by some researchers to have already caused
as many as 86,000 birth defects and 150,000 premature deaths, and may eventually result
in more than two million cancer deaths in the long run. Uranium mining, conducted in
many countries, is known to lead to severe cases of contamination, and the same is true of
operations along the whole production chain. One has only to survey the scale of the
problem at the vast nuclear production site at Hanford, USA to see the urgency and
importance of the task.
It is no secret that the disposal and clean up of Russia's surplus stocks of chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons also present a tremendous environmental (and security)
challenge. The G8 governments at their Calgary Summit (June 2002) finally agreed to
devote substantial resources to addressing the issue.
While nuclear facility managers often choose to minimise the problem, local citizens
groups such as the members of the Military Toxics Network in the US, have done
important work over long periods to reveal the dangers and to campaign for closure,
compensation etc. In the process of nuclear weapons development and production,
government departments, local authorities, the private sector and labour organisations are
important actors. What is needed is a systematic effort to bring them together with those
who have the finance and scientific expertise, in order to ensure that the industry is
gradually wound up, provisions made for the long term future, and the remaining
resources invested in renewable energies and technologies.
People around the world are displaced where the military take over land (and bodies of
water) that the local residents need to live on or feed from, for use as bases, target ranges,
weapons stores, training grounds etc. A few of the many examples are Thule in Greenland
where indigenous Inuit were displaced for the US base, and the US bases in Okinawa
(Japan), Guantanamo (Cuba), and Diego Garcia. Military activities often involve the use of
fuels, explosives, solvents and other toxic substances. When improperly handled or stored,
they can seep into the environment and affect nearby communities. Military exercises
often damage farmland and other property, as heavy military vehicles travel over small
roads and bridges. In the lands of the Innu (Canada) and elsewhere, noise pollution from
low-flying military aircraft has proved a serious menace, including to the rearing of
animals. This has prompted the development of a vigorous citizens’ campaign.
Environmental and health concerns almost always take a back seat to military
prerogatives. The recent protests of the inhabitants of the Caribbean island of Vieques off
Puerto Rico are another good example of the environmental and social stresses caused by
military bases, and the disregard shown by army planners for local people.
f. Resource diversion
In addition to the direct impacts on the environment, the military has indirect effects that
come about through the “opportunity costs” of spending on military security.
World military expenditures totalled $US 781 billion in 1999. World military research and
development alone totals $US 58 billion per year. The trade in weapons and other military
equipment is the second largest international trade sector. About one quarter of the
world's jet fuel is consumed by the armed forces. Over half the helicopters in the world are
for military use. These mammoth expenditures could be used productively to promote
human welfare, including the environment-friendly goals of developing renewable
sources of energy and promoting sustainable development.
Member states of the UN have recognised that the military budget has been a waste of
resources. Since 1976, meetings such as the UN General Assembly, Social Development
Summit, Habitat, etc have reiterated the need to reduce the global military budget. It is
time for member states to act on their commitments.
Among the most challenging obstacles to doing this is the influence of the military-
industrial complex and in particular the power of the major corporations engaged in
military business. This includes not only weapons manufacturers and traders but also
large sectors of the aviation, transport, metalworking, electronics, and computing
industries. These days few areas are immune from military influence. In countries like
China and Burma, the military directly runs large sectors of the civilian economy. When
representatives of such interests point to the large numbers of jobs created or sustained by
the industry, they fail to take into account the number of posts that could be created if the
resources were invested differently. Furthermore, corporations like Siemens have
developed an attractive public environment-profile which fails to refer to their role in
production of nuclear energy or weapons. Such ‘greenwash’ is a major impediment to
proper public understanding of the menace that militarism poses to the health of the
3. The Military Dimension in discussions on the Environment and Development
While international fora on the environment and development have touched upon the
military dimension, it has not been fully addressed.
a. 1972 UN Stockholm Conference
The 1972 Stockholm Conference was the first major global event to focus international
attention on environmental issues, especially those relating to environmental degradation
and "transboundary pollution". Principle 26 of its Declaration called for the elimination of
all weapons of mass destruction.
b. The Brundtland Report: "Our Common Future," 1987
The Brundtland Report of 1987-- "Our Common Future: The World Commission on
Environment and Development" -- was the first international report on environmental
issues to stress the new, combined concept of sustainable development. The Brundtland
Report devoted a whole chapter to "Peace, Security, Development and the Environment".
Some of its conclusions directly pertain to the military:
* A comprehensive approach to international and national security must transcend
the traditional emphasis on military power and armed competition.
* The real sources of insecurity encompass unsustainable development. Armed
competition and conflict create major obstacles to sustainable development. They
stimulate an ethos that is antagonistic towards cooperation amongst nations.
* Environmental stress is a cause and effect of political tension and military conflict.
Nations have often fought to assert or resist control over raw materials, energy
supplies, land etc. The danger of such conflicts will increase as these resources
* Damage to the environment occurs not just from nuclear war but from use of
conventional, biological and chemical weapons.
* Vast resources are diverted into arms production and related research which could
be, at least in part, used to promote sustainable development.
* A broader approach to security assessment would find many cases in which
national, regional and global security could be enhanced through expenditures quite
small in relation to the levels of military spending. Four of the most urgent global
environmental requirements - relating to tropical forests, water, desertification, and
population - could be funded with the equivalent of less than one month's global
c. The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio 1992
The Rio Declaration contained two principles that pertain to the military, both of which
reflect the insights of the Brundtland Report:
Principle 24: Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. Nations
shall respect international laws protecting the environment in times of armed
conflict, and shall cooperate in their further establishment.
Principle 25: Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent
It also enshrined the important Precautionary Principle, whereby if there is a body of
scientific evidence strongly indicating (without conclusive proof) that measures need to be
taken to protect the environment, then measures should be taken immediately without
waiting for conclusive proof.
However, none of the 40 chapters of "Agenda 21" - not even those on radioactive wastes
and toxic chemicals - included references to military issues. The exclusion of such
references was largely due to the blocking tactics of many militarily powerful countries
led by the US, which opposed any attempts to raise these issues, claiming that they were
not relevant to the questions of environment and development. This no doubt was in
order to avoid another key principle being invoked: the ‘the polluter pays’ concept.
d. The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and "Earth Summit + 5"
UNCED established the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), a Commission
of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to ensure follow-up of UNCED. A
five-year review of the Earth Summit was made in 1997 in a UN General Assembly special
session, called "Earth Summit +5". Neither of these processes however have done anything
significant to address the military impact on the environment.
e. World Summit on Sustainable Development ("RIO + 10")
The next major opportunity to address the military dimension of environmental issues
will be the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), to be held in
Johannesburg, South Africa, from 26 August to 4 September, 2002.
The Preparatory Committee process paid limited attention to the military dimension. The
draft outcome document from the last (4th) PrepCom in Bali (27 May to 7 June 2002)
contains just one reference to armed conflict. This occurs in Paragraph 5, which reflects
Principle 24 of the Rio Declaration, which said that “warfare is inherently destructive of
sustainable development”. The relevant reference reads as follows, with a contested
phrase underlined and in brackets:
Peace, security and stability [and respect for human rights and cultural diversity]
are essential for achieving development and ensuring that sustainable development
This draft outcome document has a number of square-brackets indicating text that did not
receive a consensus agreement. The disputed text pertains to such matters as the
transportation of radioactive waste, the incorporation of the Precautionary Principle (set
out in the Rio Declaration), the phasing out of subsidies on fossil fuels (to encourage
renewables), sustainability impact-assessments, protection of human rights etc. The
exclusion of military factors from most of the discussion is reflected in the fact that the
only issue cited that is clearly connected to military activity is radioactive waste.
4. Other Initiatives Important to Addressing the Military Dimension
A number of initiatives, described below, have been taken over the last 10 years which
either address the military dimension of environmental issues, or aim to create the
opportunity to do so.