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The fallen trees of the Massar Jabba Forest and eco-terrorism in the 21st Century

Image credit: 'Edge of Space' (Creative Commons: Flickr)

The recent bombing of a forested region of Pakistan by Indian forces has led to a serious international discussion of eco-terrorism. It’s essential that the UN gets this dialogue right the first time around, as resources and the environment will become an increasing factor in wars around the world in the coming years. It is likely that cases of eco-terrorism will become more frequent and more severe, as the contrast between the ecological ‘haves’, endowed with abundant resources, and the ‘have-nots’ becomes starker. Examining the changing face of the long-running conflict between India and Pakistan can serve as a case study into how already tense political situations may escalate ecologically.

The Partition of India in by the British in 1947 split India and Pakistan into separate nations along arbitrary geographic lines. The British sought to separate Islamic people on the subcontinent from largely Hindu India, however, managed to create enduring social pressure and conflict between the two nations. Over 14 million people were displaced and the formerly independent state of Kashmir in the Himalayas was left in dispute. In the years since the two countries have been to war four times.

On the 14th of February this year, a suicide bombing which hit a convoy of Indian military trucks in an Indian-controlled region of Kashmir killed dozens of soldiers. In retaliation against the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the attack, Indian aircraft bombed part of the disputed border area currently claimed by Pakistan. India subsequently claimed that the bombed area was controlled by JeM and that they eliminated ‘many rebels’. The Pakistani government denied this and treated the incursion as a violation of their sovereignty. In a show of force, Islamabad sent Pakistani jets into the disputed area to engage in a dogfight with Indian aircraft, during which an Indian pilot was captured and taken hostage. The pilot was released after terse negotiation, however, it so happens that the Indian bombing was over a protected area of the Masar-Jabba forest reserve.

Pakistan has sought to leverage this detail by lodging a complaint of eco-terrorism against India at the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA). The complaint was officially lodged on the 15th of March, alleging that India breached the Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits warfare which may cause ‘widespread, long term and severe damage’ to the natural environment. At the UNEA, Pakistani representative Mr Malik Amin Aslam Khan stated:

‘This deplorable “strike” was clearly a strike against nature. It has been duly booked under the KP provincial forest Act in Pakistan and an independent “Natural Resource Damage Assessment” has already been carried out. While we reserve the right for taking further legal action and for claiming compensation and retribution for this act, we are raising it at this forum to give a voice to the voiceless – the fallen trees of Massar Jabba Forest reserve - which became the silent victims of this shameful attack on nature … We also intend to take it up at the UN (Sixth Committee) to urgently and clearly define the term “Eco-terrorism” – especially as it relates to incidents such as this strike against nature.’

With this in mind, it is worth considering the definition of prohibited warfare quoted above from the Geneva Convention. Certainly, the destruction of old growth trees will qualify as ‘long term’ and ‘severe’, however, the requirement to be ‘widespread’ may be harder to judge. Given that this area of the Geneva Convention has little legal guidance, it may be seen as easiest to gloss the issue over diplomatically. Furthermore, the legitimacy of Pakistan’s claim of eco-terrorism may be questioned, as, after the 2018 election of former cricketer Imran Khan as the prime minister of Pakistan, the country has waged a war of words against India.

We live in an age where propaganda and fake news is propagated freely on the internet, having a serious influence on international political discord. Khan was elected with the backing of the Pakistani military, which has previously backed anti-India rebels both in Kashmir and deep inside India. It would not be surprising if the claim was at least somewhat propaganda-based, given this political backdrop.

Despite this, the way the UN handles these allegations will be of paramount importance, because it will set the precedent for how such allegations are dealt with in future. It is essential that, irrespective of the political murkiness, these allegations are not glossed over. As this is the first time such an allegation has been brought before the UN, a process must be established which is fair, serious, resource efficient and timely. The most effective method would be to establish an impartial team to inspect the damage in Pakistan and determine any appropriate sanction for India. It also relies on the establishment of a clear definition of the terms that comprise ‘eco-terrorism’ for the 21st century.

If these are established, then the UN will have a precedent for handling these types of allegations, even if there is no finding of eco-terrorism in this case. It is almost unquestionable that in the coming years, as natural resources become more scarce, countries will see them as an asset that can be leveraged in war or simply for political gain. By establishing a fair process, the UN can deter nations from doing so or from making false claims for political benefit.

Liam Rawson is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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