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Ecocide can soon be a punishable offence, on a par with war crimes

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The draft law, unveiled on Tuesday defines Ecocide, first coined in 1970, as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Ecocide can soon be a punishable offence, on a par with war crimes

Demands to criminalize acts of environmental destruction and equate them with ‘wars of crime’ has been gaining momentum across the world. A panel of a dozen legal experts brought together by the Stop Ecocide Foundation (SEF) has now decided on a legal definition of the word “ecocide”.

The draft law, unveiled on Tuesday defines Ecocide, first coined in 1970, as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC) can adopt this definition to prosecute the most heinous offences against the environment.

The SEF’s initiative establishes ‘ecocide’ in the same context as war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

This is the first time that the definition has been convened globally and in response to political demand to actually look for a solution to this problem, Jojo Mehta, co-founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign, told CNBC.

It could come into force in four to five years, she added.

Referring to “a moral red line”, SEF is now pushing for a standalone law to punish decision-makers at the highest levels to prevent widespread environmental destruction.

She had started the campaign along with visionary lawyer Polly Higgins, who fought for recognition of “ecocide”.

The aim

If ecocide is recognized in international criminal law, it will bring several benefits such as a greater and wider public understanding of the scale and scope of the ecological crisis.

It can herald the expansion of international accountability and prevention/avoidance of eco-crimes. It can provide access to compensations, reimbursements, and damage claims.

Overall, it will open the door to enhance the rights of nature in the human context.

This could be the first major step in a global ‘climate change’ campaign aimed at preventing environmental catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest or deadly cyclones in the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal.

The history

Late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme had propounded the concept at the 1972 UN environmental conference in Stockholm.

Prominent personalities like Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron had endorsed the movement to recognize ecocide as an international crime.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg started Fridays for Future, as “a global people’s movement for climate justice” in 2018.

On December 2, 2019, the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu propagated ‘ecocide’ as an international crime. The Maldives government backed this move as both countries bore the brunt of ‘ecocide’ resulting in a land loss due to rising sea levels and global temperatures.

The challenges

There is resistance amongst countries to include corporates in the international ecocide law. In the current context, the law applies to individuals only. Some states are hesitant to enforce harsh penalties in their domestic regions.

Several large climate defaulter countries such as the US, China, India and Russia, among others are not a party to the ICC’s Rome Statute (123 countries are party).

At present, ICC prosecutes just four offences: genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, and war crimes.

What's next?

One amongst the ICC’s 123 member countries needs to submit the definition of Ecocide to the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres. This would trigger a formal multistep process, which could lead to an amendment of the Rome Statute.

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court establishes Court's functions, jurisdictions, and structure. Rome Statute could then probe mass environmental destruction as the fifth crime.