What it means if “ecocide” becomes an international crime
Ecocide means destroying the environment, but when considered etymologically, from Greek and Latin, it means killing one’s home.
When we were first able to see and photograph the Earth from space, our planetary perspective changed. Suddenly, “home” took on a whole new meaning. Nowhere, from what our technology has been able to discern, is there evidence of a planet like Earth – nowhere else that can support life as we know it.
During its recent period of climate stability of 11,700 years, this is what our planetary home has done, facilitating the propagation and technological advancement of human civilization. While benefiting many in terms of material comfort, life expectancy and societal support structures, this advance has increasingly come about within a framework of thought that perceives nature as “other” – a resource to be found. exploit or an enemy to be defeated. The Oxford English Dictionary even defines nature as “opposed to humans.”
In this perspective, since the industrial revolution, we have – first unintentionally, now recklessly and even knowingly – disrupt the biological, chemical and atmospheric systems whose stable interaction depends on us intimately and deeply. Greenhouse gas emissions are only part of this story. Little by little, with each felled forest, polluted river system, extinction of species, oil spill, leakage of toxic waste, nuclear or mining disaster, we are committing an ecocide. Relentlessly and with surprising rapidity, we are killing our home – all the while exacerbating social injustice, racial inequality and resource conflicts along the way.
And because our legal system does not treat environmental destruction with the seriousness that we are now beginning to understand it deserves, we do so with impunity.
The word “ecocide” was first used internationally by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme at the United Nations Environment Conference in Stockholm (1972), when he said that “the destruction caused … by the large-scale use of bulldozers and pesticides is an indignation sometimes referred to as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention. “
Almost 50 years later, the world is finally starting to pay attention. Last month, a group of experts of the best international criminal and environmental lawyers, assembled by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, proposed a legal definition of the term, which could be adopted in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court ( ICC) as the fifth crime alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Responding to the explicit call of the climate-vulnerable island nations of Vanuatu and the Maldives, directly affected by sea level rise and severe tropical storms, such a ruling would criminalize “unlawful or indiscriminate acts committed in the knowledge that” there is a substantial likelihood of serious and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment caused by these acts.
The warmth of the response to this legal definition has been remarkable. Sparking articles in more than 100 global publications in the first week, from Financial Time at Der Spiegel and of Bloomberg at The world, it also sparked political action. From Bangladesh to the Caribbean to the UK (where an amendment to the government’s Environment Bill includes the entire recently released definition), diplomats and politicians are joining a conversation that already includes EU states such as France and Belgium and has the support of public figures as influential and diverse as Pope FrancisPope Francis Pope to deliver Sunday prayer from Rome hospital after surgery The Hill’s Morning Report – Biden renews family plan pitch; Senate prepares to bring infrastructure package to ground Pope suffered ‘severe’ colon narrowing, exams show MORE and Greta Thunberg.
Since the mandate of the International Criminal Court is the prosecution of individuals, the addition of ecocide to the list of crimes considered “of greatest concern to the international community as a whole” would make the major economic and political actors personally liable to criminal prosecution in any ratification if their decisions threaten to cause serious and widespread or long-term environmental damage – thus creating an enforceable deterrent to help prevent funding from flowing into projects that could destroy ecosystems. Nothing focuses the mind like having your personal freedom at stake.
Moreover, the law on ecocides can turn out to be not only a stick but also a carrot. Defining a criminal parameter will not only move the activity away from dangers – acting as a sort of health and safety law for the planet – but is likely to spur innovation and development in a healthy direction in a broad sense. range of economic sectors. Most of the solutions we need to make the transition to sustainability are already available – renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, circular economy – but are not supported or developed at scale as finance continues to pour into the same old ones. destructive approaches, leaving those who would do the right thing at a disadvantage.
Criminalizing the destruction of ecosystems at the highest level could also consolidate and strengthen the whole edifice of environmental law, supporting all those working to improve regulation and best practices, activists frontline to academics, scientists, NGOs and policy makers.
While it would be naive to believe that establishing this crime would be a silver bullet to all of our environmental problems, if not prevent all ecocides, it is difficult to see how our planet’s survival systems can be adequately protected – or even Target Paris and the UN Sustainable Development Goals have been realistically approached – without such a “hard stop” intervention. This year’s UNFCCC NDC Synthesis Report certainly suggests that we are not doing well without it. Goodwill deals and high ambitions clearly fall short.
But perhaps the most powerful effect of defining and criminalizing ecocide as an international crime may be that of starting to change cultural and moral assumptions. Our understanding of our place in the natural world and our responsibility towards it is in urgent need of a reality check. Calling out and condemning ecocide for what it is may be exactly what is needed if we are to begin to transform our relationship with Earth from one of evil to one of harmony. This is perhaps the best way to ensure that our children, and our children’s children, can always call this beautiful planet “home”.
Jojo Mehta is co-founder and executive director of Stop Ecocide International and president of the Stop Ecocide charitable foundation. She co-founded the public campaign in 2017 (alongside law pioneer Polly Higgins) to argue that serious damage to nature is an international crime and oversaw the growth of the global movement while coordinating legal developments, diplomatic traction and public discourse.