Making Ecocide an International Crime

Throughout the years, human activities have harmed ecological resources in the name of “development.” Ecological deterioration was long observed as a mere side effect of progressing in other walks of life. However, we’re all aware that, now, the issue of environmental destruction is increasingly gaining attention. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this decade will determine whether we’ll be able to save the planet, or it will be increasingly burdened by severe climate change and a rise in world temperatures. 

Therefore, the talk about making environmental degradation an international crime has been around for a while. According to the Rome Statute, the crimes within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court include Genocide, War Crimes, Crimes due to Aggression, and Crimes against Humanity. Many environmentalists are rallying to make Ecocide the fifth international crime.

What is Ecocide?

Ecocide refers to mass environmental destruction, both widespread and long-term, caused while knowing the long-term effects and risks of doing so. The term, coined by US biologist Arthur Galston, derives from the Greek “oikos,” which means home, and “caedere,” which means demolish or kill. In the 1950s, Galston was horrified by how a chemical component his team created was used in the Vietnam war to poison human health and destroy the environment on a fearsome scale. 

Despite the support for Galston’s anti-war declarations, Ecocide was never added to any international crime statute. However, in 2008, lawyer Polly Higgins embarked on a mission to develop a bulletproof legal framework that protects the natural world. She uncovered the term Ecocide during her research. In 2010, she made the first proposal that the International Law Commission modify the Rome Statute to include Ecocide, which she described as:

extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory is severely diminished.”

Ecocide causes some of the world’s “worst climate abuse,” and various activities fall under this term. To be included in the Rome Statute, a two-thirds majority (equal to 82 heads of state) need to vote in favor of amending the treaty.

What activities can fall under Ecocide?

The term encompasses all sorts of activities that can harm the global commons as they belong to no one and therefore should not be exploited or polluted as freely as they are today. Wars, deforestation, air pollution, ocean damage, and mining, fall under Ecocide.

Underground accidents that cause mine and pipeline explosions also count as they further harm the environment. Air pollution consists of nuclear testing, chemical weapons, and major industrial emissions. Industrial emissions caused by cement, agricultural, and fossil fuel industries also contribute to poor air quality and Ecocide. Ocean damage consists of plastic pollution, oil spills, and industrial fishing. 

Deforestation is caused by mineral extraction, oil drilling, industrial livestock farming, and wood production. Other miscellaneous issues include textile chemicals, river systems, and agricultural pollution through soil quality and erosion.

Some of the major activities that took place in the past were the Vietnam War, the use of Agent Orange, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Alberta Tar Sands, and the Ajka alumina sludge spill (2010). 

What is the amendment proposal?

In 2020, environmental scientists and international lawyers came together to develop an updated, transparent, and completely legal definition of Ecocide. This definition would then be submitted for review to a head of state who is willing to propose the amendment to the ICC. The next ideal step would be to garner the two-thirds majority needed for it to be added to the Rome Statute. The proposed definition was considered to be a step forward in turning Ecocide into an international crime. It is posited as a crime both towards nature and humans. 

To make Ecocide a part of the ICC, certain steps are to be followed. The proposed definition of Ecocide is the first step, followed by the following:

  1. A member country of the ICC (excluding India, China, and the US) will have to submit the proposed definition of Ecocide to the UN secretary-general. 
  2. Voting will take place during the annual assembly. Only if the majority votes in favor of the proposal will the rest of the steps be carried out. 
  3. When the law is in place, member countries must enforce it one year later. Under universal jurisdiction principles, any ratifying nation may also arrest a non-national on their soil for a crime committed elsewhere. 

Despite the simple-looking three steps on paper, the process is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Will the amendment gather enough support?

It is against the law to hurt or kill people. However, it is not a crime to knowingly harm the environment for personal gain. To date, environmental laws charge corporations and other perpetrators with financial compensation for environmental damage. It will likely take enormous pressure to go one step further and make Ecocide a crime. This is especially so because the fossil fuel and extractive industries have a powerful chokehold on corporations and economies today, and they happen to be one of the most significant drivers of ecological damage.

However, there have been developments that paint a positive picture: one that shows society’s support for criminalizing Ecocide might continue to grow over the years. For starters, there are the People’s Tribunals, whose aim is to educate the public about Ecocide and develop strong arguments that can hold up once the proposal for the amendment is made. Another major show of support came from Pope Francis in 2019, who urged that Ecocide be recognized as the “fifth category of crime against peace.” 

If Ecocide were made a crime, then it would be quite unlike the hours of talks at global scales that often lead to empty promises and no resolution. Instead of getting away with a fine, perpetrators will be liable to prosecution and imprisonment. Naturally, this sparked contrary arguments that such an action would mean tipping the scales a bit too far away from catering to human needs.

There are other drawbacks to consider. One flaw in the ICC is that many countries, including three of the top five world economies—India, China, and the US—aren’t members. They aren’t exempt from universal jurisdiction principles but can only be investigated with the permission of the United Nations Security Council. 

The chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation, Jojo Mehta, has acknowledged that going the ICC route is a challenging choice. However, Mehta added that the ICC is “the only global mechanism that directly accesses the criminal justice systems of all its member states.” 

Although this process could take years or decades to implement, the environmentalists working on this amendment are confident that the ICC will respond positively to it. It may not stop Ecocide entirely but will up the ante on repercussions and hold more systems and corporations accountable in their own time. 

The final word

It is common knowledge that today, humanity stands at crossroads. We’ve left a trail of destruction behind us while achieving progress that was once unimaginable. Our next steps will determine whether we’ll be able to salvage and nourish what’s left of the environment or continue down the same destructive path.

International law has a critical role to play in what choice we end up making. Environment-centric political initiatives can fill holes in the current legislature and turn our relationship with the natural world from one of harm to one of harmony.