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Dangerous Liaisons: War and the Environment

While politicians and military historians celebrate the sixth anniversary of the Persian Gulf war, the ferocious onslaught against the environment and human health continues.

The Gulf war ranks among the most ecologically destructive conflicts ever, and the time has finally come for the world community to consider creating a stronger convention for the protection of the environment during and after war. This task requires a political centrist, someone like Madeleine Albright, the new United States secretary of state.

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During the war, the Persian Gulf region was transformed into a disaster zone. The hundreds of oil fires that produced unprecedented amounts of pollution were extinguished within six months but became a huge air pollution laboratory; oil spilled onto the ground and into the Gulf waters, tainting underground aquifers and poisoning marine life. Attacks on refineries and petrochemical plants continue to have an insidious effect on the air, water, and soil. But the tragedy does not stop there.

Thousands of unexploded bombs and mines litter the former battlefields; tons of shards of depleted uranium used for armor-piercing bullets pepper southern Iraq; military personnel were exposed to highly toxic materials through routine handling of tanks, fighter jets, and other equipment; and the discharge of organophosphate compounds, blistering agents, and gases from chemical weapons depots ostensibly contaminated ground forces.

THE disparity in the response to the military and environmental effects of the conflict could hardly have been more pronounced. To force Iraq out of Kuwait, no expense was spared. An alliance of more than two dozen countries was carefully crafted, the United Nations machinery for collective security was thrown into high gear, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and huge amounts of equipment were ferried halfway around the globe.

By contrast, assessing and tackling the ecological consequences of the war remained a low priority. Instead of facilitating an honest assessment of the war's environmental consequences, the Bush administration sought to downplay them. Once the oil-well fires, the most visible impact of the war, had been extinguished and CNN declared that everything was better, any ongoing response to monitor the myriad problems was aborted.

The enigmatic Gulf War Syndrome is an example of how the war's collateral effects have transcended the battlefield. Now the United States government must remedy the mysterious illness troubling thousands of veterans or it will have a very difficult time winning popular support for future armed conflicts. Therefore, the US must push for the establishment of mechanisms to cope with the environmental-health damage arising from armed conflicts.

Mrs. Albright has a firebrand reputation for advocating UN reform. Similar fervor is needed on the issue of war and environmental protection. Although international environmental protection agreements are necessary, the most important step is still to work for peaceful means of resolving conflict. The lesson is simple: Avoid war at all costs. If not, pay the price.

Albright can mitigate the price by:

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* Ratifying the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

* Strengthening the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques and a 1977 amendment to the 1949 Geneva Protocol.

* Implementing UN Resolution 44/224 to "strengthen the international cooperation in monitoring, assessing and anticipating environmental threats."

But let's face it: Even a strengthened international code is of limited value. The conduct of war and the protection of the natural environment are fundamentally incompatible objectives. War on the environment is, unfortunately, nothing new.

From the Punic Wars in the 3rd century BC on, armies have poisoned wells, salted soils, and destroyed crops to foil the enemy. However, over time the environmental impact of warfare has grown as sophisticated technology has boosted the firepower, range, and speed of weapons. In addition, modern industries present many high-profile targets whose destruction can wreak environmental devastation on a vast scale.

Only after the dawn of the atomic age did nations gradually begin to realize that nuclear arsenals, if used, would destroy what they were supposed to defend.

Now, in the wake of the Gulf war and its immense environmental health toll, conventional warfare too may come to be seen as a less acceptable means of settling conflicts.

* Ross Mirkarimi, who currently works for the San Francisco district attorney, led the 1991 Harvard Environmental Study Team in Iraq.

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