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Environmental Destruction in the 1991 Gulf War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2010


Since the 1991 war between Iraq and the coalition powers there has been much interest in the question of how to limit the environmental damage of warfare. In addressing that question, it is necessary to look at the events of the war itself, and to draw some conclusions from that experience as well as from other experience and from more normative approaches.

Protection of the Environment in Time of Armed Conflict
Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 1992

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This is an extensively revised and abridged version of a paper presented at the ICRC Meeting of Experts on the Protection of the Environment in Time of Armed Conflict, Geneva, 27–29 April 1992. A longer version will appear in Peter Rowe (ed.), The Gulf War and International Law, Routledge, London, 1993. Copyright © Adam Roberts 1992.


1 Keeva, Steven, “Lawyers in the War Room”, ABA Journal, American Bar Association, Chicago, Ill., vol. 77, 12 1991, p. 52.Google Scholar See also the passage on “Role of Legal Advisers” in Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, Washington DC, Department of Defense, 04 1992, pp. 0–3 and 0–4.Google Scholar

2 Text published in Scientific American, New York, vol. 264, no. 5, 05 1991, p. 9.Google Scholar A DOE spokesperson is quoted as saying that the policy was not intended to “muzzle the debate”, but because discussions of the possible effects of fires and oil spills could “give the Iraqis ideas”.

3 Pentagon, Final Report to Congress, p. 0–26. In the same month, a Greenpeace paper by William M. Arkin, “Gulf War Damage to the Natural Environment”, pp. 2–3, gave the same figure, but mentioned additionally that smaller quantities of oil continued to leak into the Gulf from a number of sources until May or early June 1991.

4 A short survey of ecological damage is The Environmental Legacy of the Gulf War, Amsterdam, Greenpeace, 1992.Google Scholar

5 Kuwait Environment Protection Council, State of the Environment Report: A Case Study of Iraqi Regime Crimes Against the Environment, Kuwait, 11 1991, pp. 1, 23 Google Scholar, and Table in Fig. 2. This states that after 26 February, 613 wells were on fire, 76 gushing, and 99 damaged. It quotes the Ministry of Oil in Kuwait as stating that 6 million barrels of oil per day, and 100 million cubic metres of gas a day, were being lost. Greenpeace, , The Environmental Legacy of the Gulf War, pp. 17 and 38 Google Scholar, gives figures of between 2.3 and 6 million barrels per day.

6 Letter from Permanent Mission of Kuwait at UN to the UN Secretary-General, 12 July 1991; text in Plant, Glen (ed.), Environmental Protection and the Law of War, London, Belhaven Press, 1992, p. 265.Google Scholar

7 Confirmed by the Pentagon in Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict: An Interim Report to Congress, Washington DC, Department of Defense, 07 1991, pp. 13–1 and 13–2Google Scholar; and in the 1992 Final Report to Congress, p. 0–27.

8 Compare the Pentagon, 's Interim Report to Congress, p. 13–2Google Scholar (which says the smoke did have some effect) with the Final Report to Congress, p. 0–27 (which says it had little).

9 Hansard, London, vol. 184, col. 655, 28 01 1991 Google Scholar; vol. 186, cols. 285–6, 22 February 1991.

10 See e.g. Greenpeace, , Environmental Legacy of the Gulf War, pp. 1722 and 34.Google Scholar

11 Horgan, John, “Up in Flames”, Scientific American, vol. 264, no. 5, 05 1991, pp. 79 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brown, Neville, “The Blazing Oilwells of Kuwait”, The World Today, London, vol. 47, no. 6, 06 1991 Google Scholar; Johnson, D. W. et al. , “Airborne Observations of the Physical and Chemical Characteristics of the Kuwait Oil Smoke Plume”, Nature, London, vol. 353, no. 6345, 17 10 1991, esp. at p. 621.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 This is the clear conclusion of the Pentagon, 's Interim Report to Congress, p. 12–6Google Scholar; and Final Report to Congress, pp. 0–26 and 0–27.

13 Interim Report to Congress, pp. 12–5 and 12–6.Google Scholar

14 Final Report to Congress, p. 0–27.

15 Report of the UN Secretary-General to the President of the Security Council, New York, 20 March 1991 (S/22366), prepared by Under-Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari.

16 Needless Deaths in the Gulf War: Civilian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War, Middle East Watch/Human Rights Watch, New York, 1991, 402 pp.Google Scholar

17 See for example the report by Lewis, Paul, “Effects of War Begin to Fade in Iraq”, New York Times, 12 05 1991, p. 2E.Google Scholar

18 House of Commons, Defence Committee, Tenth Report, Preliminary Lessons of Operation Granby, HMSO, London, 07 1991, pp. 1011.Google Scholar

19 Statement on the Defence Estimates, 1991, vol. 1, HMSO, London, 07 1991, p. 17.Google Scholar

20 Department of Defense, Interim Report to Congress, p. 12–3Google Scholar; and Final Report to Congress, p. 0–10.

21 Schachter, Oscar, “United Nations Law in the Gulf Conflict”, American Journal of International Law, Washington DC, vol. 85, no. 3, 07 1991, p. 466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Horwitz, Tony, report from Kuwait, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Brussels, 21 01 1992.Google Scholar

23 On the methods of coping with the oil spills in the Gulf, see especially Arkin, William M. et al. , “On Impact: Modern Warfare and the Environment — A Case Study of the Gulf War”, Washington DC, 05 1991, pp. 63–6Google Scholar; Horgan, John, “The Muddled Cleanup in the Persian Gulf”, Scientific American, vol. 265, no. 4, 10 1991, pp. 86–8Google Scholar; and Holloway, Marguerite, “Soiled Shores”, same issue, pp. 8194.Google Scholar

24 See e.g. Kielmas, Maria, “Kuwait Plunders Oilfields to Destruction”, The Independent, London, 22 05 1992.Google Scholar

25 A point made admirably by Bouvier, Antoine, “Protection of the Natural Environment in Time of Armed Conflict”, IRRC, No. 285, 1112 1991, p. 570.CrossRefGoogle Scholar