Ecocide: Why killing nature should be a crime

The 6th mass extinction is upon us. It’s a man-made biodiversity crisis fueled by climate change and mass-scale exploitative destruction of nature.

We all play a part, but while more and more of us try to alter our habits, eat less meat, fly less, use public transportation, sort our garbage, cut out single-use plastic, and let our yards grow wilder, the big fish continue to commit massive, irreversible damage to the environment – with practical impunity.

Tell me why the executives of companies banking billions of US Dollars every year through deforestation, pollution, and land grabbing should not be held accountable for their ecocidal actions?

It is the big fish, such as the executives of mass-polluting multinationals, and negligent heads of states, we need to get to. Ecocide should be an international crime.

Eco-what? Ecocide. There are various definitions of the word, but most of them entail the severe damage, destruction or loss of ecosystems, caused by willful or negligent acts.

Crude oil spill in Thailand, 2013. Photo by: jukurae/Shutterstock.

That should not be allowed, right? So far, only thirteen countries have criminalized ecocide. The countries are Vietnam, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Ecuador, and Guatemala.

Due to the lack of international coherence and cooperation on the matter, each of these countries has to tackle potentially powerful multinational polluters on their own.

In 2016, an environmental court in Guatemala found the Spanish African palm oil company REPSA guilty of having polluted a major river, hence committing ecocide. During the case, one of the filers against the company was shot dead on the court steps, and others were abducted, threatened and harassed by the company. REPSA continues its destructive practices to this day.

Most countries have some type of environmental protection law, but according to Ecocide Law, the regulations are “regularly contravened”, for instance when governments issue special permits which allow certain businesses or industries to pollute. There are multiple examples of citizens bringing civil lawsuits against polluting companies, where, if found guilty, the companies are hit with more or less substantial fines.

It remains that the willful or negligent destruction of ecosystems is yet to be criminalized in most countries and on an international level.

This needs to happen. The “good-faith” based international agreements such as the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals aren’t going to cut it alone. There are plenty of big fish-polluters, whose “good faith” is merely PR-strategic greenwashing.

The fight to criminalize ecocide

It is not as though the concept of ecocide has been suddenly sprung upon us. The problem was seriously debated in the 1970’s, when the United Nations entertained the idea of “expanding” the Genocide Convention to include the crime of ecocide.

In the 80’s, the UN’s International Law Commission considered including an environmental crime within the ‘Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind’. The code would later become the foundation – the Rome Statute – on which the International Criminal Court was built.

Banner raised up at a climate change protests in Westminster. Photo by:  Real Souls Photography/Shutterstock

For a few years, the draft did contain an article which would have criminalized willful acts causing serious damage to the environment. The article was however removed, and the process around its removal is opaque. According to a report from the Human Rights Consortium in London, there are indications that the removal was largely due to comments from a few countries opposing any form of inclusion of environmental crime.

Now, groups of lawyers and activists are working hard to squeeze ecocide back in there. Spearheaded by the late environmental champion Polly Higgins, groups have worked for years trying to get the UN to acknowledge ecocide as the “fifth crime against peace” – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression are the current four.

The logic is clear: the mass destruction of nature and hence the breakdown of ecosystems causes resource depletion. Resource depletion leads to conflict. Conflict may lead to full-scale war.

In 2016, the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court proclaimed in a policy paper that they would give “particular consideration” to prosecuting Rome Statute crimes (crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, crimes of aggression) in which destruction of environment, illegal exploitation of resources or land grabbing is taking place as a means or as a result.

This was a step welcomed by many environmentalists and climate litigators, but not much has happened since.

Deforestation in the Malaysian Rainforset, Photo by: Rich Carey/Shutterstock.

This July, the climate activist and force of nature Greta Thunberg, along with three other youth activists, sent a letter to all EU heads of state, demanding them to take several immediate steps against climate change and loss of biodiversity. One of those steps is making ecocide an international crime. The letter was backed by signatures from thousands of scientists, influences, and activists.

Biodiversity and human rights

Criminalizing ecocide on an international level would be a big step, but obviously we can’t just sit and wait for that to happen. The fight against the loss of biodiversity is fought daily – both globally, nationally, and locally.

A report published earlier this summer by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, concluded that “the number of climate change lawsuits has been increasing in many countries, with at least 37 countries and eight regional and international jurisdictions now having experienced at least one climate lawsuit.”

The lawsuits are directed at governments and fossil fuel companies, and human rights arguments are increasingly used by the litigants.

A big case was the Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch Government.

Late December last year, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that since climate change is a threat to the enjoyment of human rights, the Dutch government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change. The court ordered the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by the end of 2020.

It was called a groundbreaking case, which could set important precedent for future climate change litigation. It could also lead the way for biodiversity litigation.

In 2017, a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment explicitly recognized biodiversity as essential to human rights, hence the logic of the Urgenda Climate Case would apply, and citizens could potentially sue governments that fail to take action against the loss of biodiversity.

And action is urgently needed. Since heads of state began discussing this in the 1970’s, the world has lost about 60 percent of its wildlife.

Along with all the other things you can do to help mitigate the loss of biodiversity, you can sign this petition, and demand that ecocide is recognized as an international crime.

Sources: Human Rights Consortium – Ecocide Project, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment: Global trends in climate change litigation: 2020 snapshot, Fordham Environmental Law Review:
The Campaign to Make Ecocide an International Crime: Quixotic Quest or Moral Imperative? By Anastacia Greene, stopecocide.earth, ecocidelaw.com, WWF, The Guardian, The New York Times.