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What is ecocide?

Campaigners call for environmental destruction to be viewed as legally akin to war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity

A panel of top lawyers is due to complete a draft definition of “ecocide” this month in a bid to position environmental destruction in the same international legal category as war crimes and genocide.

If this definition is adopted as an amendment to the Rome Statute, which governs the work of the International Criminal Court, countries, corporations and others could be held accountable in The Hague for mass destruction of the environment.

Where did the term ecocide come from?

The word first came into public consciousness at a United Nations environmental conference in the 1970s, when the premier of Sweden used it to describe the environmental damage caused by the Vietnam War, TIME reports. Over the decades, various ecocide statutes have been proposed but never came to pass. 

In 2017, the late British barrister Polly Higgins put ecocide firmly on the map. Higgins began exploring how humans could create a legal duty of care for the earth and realised that criminalising environmental destruction was the best way forward. She joined forces with environmental activist Jojo Mehta and the pair launched Stop Ecocide, the global campaign to establish an ecocide law. In July last year, Greta Thunberg donated €100,000 to the cause.

“Currently there is no enforceable deterrent for the serious levels of destruction that are happening around the world,” Mehta told BBC Radio 4's Woman’s Hour on 25 May. “We believe that creating a criminal law at the international level could have a really strong deterrent effect and, of course, [correct] the direction we appear to be heading in.”

What kind of crimes could be prosecuted under ecocide?

Practices that could be considered ecocide crimes include “industrial fishing with its deep-sea trawler practice of dredging the ocean floor which decimates ecosystems; oil spills – like the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana in 2010 which is still having impacts today; and the rampant plastic pollution which has invaded all corners of the world”, The Independent reports. 

A crane clearing the oil spill

Workers clean oil leftover from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Ecocide could also encompass damaging, high-impact activities like fracking, air pollution, industrial livestock farming, tar sand extraction and “the pollution of soils, rivers and insect populations with industrial chemicals and radioactive contamination from nuclear plant leaks”, says the newspaper. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle even used the term when talking about the catastrophic bush-fires that ravaged parts of Australia at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

An ecocide law could also be used to prosecute environmental crimes which fall outside national jurisdictions, something which would be “especially helpful in poorer countries where legal barriers make it difficult to hold foreign companies accountable”, TIME reports.

What issues does an ecocide law pose?

Drawing up a working definition of ecocide was described as a “very difficult balancing act” by Philippe Sands, a barrister and expert in international law who is co-chairing the panel of legal experts. “We are all contributors to climate change – does that make each of us international criminals?” he asked, when interviewed on Woman’s Hour. 

The tricky part of enshrining the law will be ensuring that it does not punish ordinary citizens but rather the top-level decision-makers who are responsible for mass atrocities. “Many people might get behind an ecocide law that charges mega-corporations for polluting on a grand scale; it is less likely they would support a law that penalises anyone who destroys the environment in any way,” TIME reports.

Who supports an ecocide law? 

Increasing numbers of world leaders are coming out in support of a law that criminalises environmental damage. At a meeting with climate activists in summer 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron shared his ambition of enshrining the crime of ecocide in environmental law. “I think I was the first leader to use that term when the Amazon was burning,” he said. “I share the ambition… to ensure that this term is enshrined in international law [making leaders] accountable before the International Criminal Court.”

Ecocide placard

A placard reading ‘Capitalism=Ecocide’ is seen during an anti-government protest in France in 2019

Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Pacific Ocean state of Vanuatu, thought to be among the most vulnerable places on Earth to the effects of climate change, was the first country to publicly call for the consideration of an international crime of ecocide. Other global leaders in the debate include Luxembourg, Finland and Canada. The European Parliament’s ENVI (environmental) Committee has also backed “the recognition of ecocide in international law”.

The UK government, however, is being “a little reticent” at present, Mehta told Woman’s Hour. Given that the UK is hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) later this year and Boris Johnson has committed to “world-leading” emissions targets, Mehta said: “We certainly hope this conversation will amplify over the coming months.”


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