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Scorched Earth: Environmental War Crimes and International Justice

  • Bronwyn Leebaw

Environmental devastation is not only a byproduct of war, but has also been a military strategy since ancient times. How have the norms and laws of war addressed the damage that war inflicts on the environment? How should “environmental war crimes” be defined and addressed? I address these questions by critically examining the way that distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate wartime environmental destruction have been drawn in debates on just war theory and the laws of war. I identify four distinctive formulations for framing the wartime significance of nature that appear in such debates and analyze how each is associated with distinctive claims regarding what constitutes “humaneness” in times of war: nature as property; nature as combatant; nature as Pandora's Box; and nature as victim. I argue that efforts to investigate and judge the environmental impact of war destabilize and expose the limitations of core distinctions that animate humanitarian norms, but also offer an important and neglected source of guidance in addressing those limitations.

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