Posted by Flux on 

23 March 2021

The notion of ecocide as a crime has been gaining momentum in the past two years, shifting  from a radical concept to one that is gaining acceptance in many countries. Vanuatu, the small island state in the South Pacific, suggested to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in December 2019 that the destruction of the environment be deemed a crime. Several high profile public figures such as Greta Thunberg, French President Emmanuel Macron and Pope Francis have come out in support of this campaign.

An international team of criminal lawyers, researchers and diplomats are working with the NGO, the Stop Ecocide Foundation, towards making ecocide an international crime, to be prosecuted by the ICC. Campaigners say, “What we mean by ecocide is mass damage and destruction of ecosystems in the same way that homicide is killing a person or genocide is destroying a people, ecocide is destroying ecosystems and we mean it in the sense of widespread, severe or systematic, and committed with knowledge of the risks because in this day and age it’s no longer possible to say that one is destroying large swathes of nature without realising what one is doing.” Ecocide encompasses activities like oil spills, deep-sea mining, industrial livestock farming and tar sand extraction. 

Environmental protection legislation already exists, however most of it is in the regulatory rather than the criminal sphere. As a result, private sector companies tend to budget for this as a cost of doing business. If such behaviour were criminalised and individual decision makers were liable, this would act as a stronger deterrent. 

Luxembourg has the second-largest ecological footprint in the world, when taking population size into account. This is a measure of how fast we consume resources and generate waste compared to how fast nature can absorb our waste. The country has now indicated that it is “ready to support the recognition of ecocide in European and international law when the time comes”. 

In response to a petition by Stop Ecocide Canada, the Canadian government has stated that it is ”committed to be a world leader for climate, both in terms of environmental action and peace promotion, and will continue to closely follow the discussions on ecocide at the international level.”

There has been an uproar at the ecological crisis of the polluted Mar Menor lagoon in Spain. The putrid smell has been described by activists as “ecocide: a crime against an ecosystem and the species – including humans – that live within it”. The Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Committee of Spain is calling on the government to consider the possibility of criminalising ecocide at both national and international levels. 

Introducing such a law, would arguably shift the mindset of society at large, emphasising the immorality of actions against the environment. It is important to note that this law will have its limitations. David Whyte, professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool, warns that since individuals and not corporations can be prosecuted under international law, removing one CEO may not be enough to stop a company’s destructive behaviour. However, it would be prudent for companies to start preparing for the probable arrival of a law criminalising ecocide. Once it is accepted by the ICC, then all member states who ratify it must include it in their domestic legislation within a year. Business leaders need to take cognisance of the damage that could occur to public and investor confidence as a result of a crime of this nature. 

By Faeeza Khan

Should killing nature be a crime?

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Image credit: Pixabay 

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