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New Study Raises Legal, Environmental Concerns Over NATO’S 1999 “Precision Bombing” of Yugoslavian Industrial Plants

United States should not consider bombing civilian facilities containing dangerous materials until it agrees to abide by relevant international legal standards

Takoma Park, MD, November 5, 2002: The destruction of chemical plants in Pancevo and Kragujevac, Yugoslavia during the 1999 “Operation Allied Force” bombing campaign may have caused long-term damage to the environment and public health in areas surrounding those facilities, according to a new report released today. Precision Bombing, Widespread Harm by the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), warns that bombing civilian industrial facilities can lead to contamination that is very difficult to clean up and may violate international humanitarian law.

Among the findings of Precision Bombing, Widespread Harm:

  • The NATO bombings released significant amounts of toxic substances into the environment;
  • Civilians living near the targets may have been exposed to greater health risks from contamination in air, water and food products;
  • Due to long delays in its inception, the post-war cleanup process in Yugoslavia has been more costly, and risks to the public may have been increased.

“There is no doubt that the bombings released large quantities of contaminants such as mercury but it is impossible to precisely determine their effects because of lack of data about pre-conflict pollution levels,” explained Sriram Gopal, IEER Staff Scientist and principal author of the report. IEER’s investigation was also hampered by rejection by the U.S. Department of Defense of an IEER Freedom of Information Act request and classification of an assessment by the General Accounting Office of the 1999 bombing campaign.

“This report does show that there is need for a sharp redefinition of how target sets and collateral damage are evaluated,” Mr. Gopal added. “Currently collateral damage is measured in terms such as the number of civilian casualties or the cost of replacing property. Long-term environmental harms can be much more difficult to quantify and evaluate, despite their very significant costs.”

Precision Bombing, Widespread Harm also calls into question the legal rationale used by NATO and the United States to justify the bombings. Nicole Deller, a lawyer and co-author of the study, said, “Precision targeting may be intended to minimize civilian damage, but the choice of targets may still violate the international laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions.” Under the laws of war, weapons that will cause excessive injury to civilians and damage to property are prohibited. “The deliberate targeting of industrial facilities that hold little military value yet can cause severe health and environmental damage appear to violate these laws,” Ms. Deller concluded.

The report offers six major recommendations:

  1. The strategy of bombing civilian facilities to accomplish military objectives needs to be openly and thoroughly debated;
  2. Environmental clean-up after military conflicts needs to be expedited, perhaps by establishing an emergency fund in an international body such as the United National Environmental Program;
  3. Information regarding past bombings of civilian industrial facilities should be available to the public for legal review;
  4. The United States should not bomb civilian industrial facilities until it agrees to abide by the legal prohibitions on environmental damage during wartime;
  5. Extensive monitoring programs should be established in Pancevo and Kragujevac; and
  6. The clean-up process should be more transparent in order to allow for independent assessments.

IEER’s research raises significant questions relevant to future conflicts, including a possible war on Iraq. “When civilians, the environment, or future generations are harmed by bombing, the countries carrying it out have the responsibility to abide by international law and to subject themselves to its strictures,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of IEER. “Sadly, the United States, which is the progenitor of the idea of the rule of law, refuses to do so. As a result, it is becoming the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, in international affairs, all at the same time. This ought to be unacceptable to the international community, no matter how powerful the country espousing such policies may be. The matter is especially urgent in the context of the debate of a possible war led by the United States on Iraq.”

The report recommends that the United States, as well as other countries that have not yet done so, ratify the framework of international law that would enable international jurisdiction over their military actions. This framework includes the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, both of which have not been fully adopted by the United States (the Bush administration has rejected the concept of possible jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over U.S. citizens under any circumstances). Countries that do not accept international legal norms as binding should not even consider bombings that could cause long-term harm to health and the environment in the absence of these minimal safeguards, the report recommended.