Ecocide: How a fast-growing movement plans to put environmental destruction on a par with war crimes

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A hiker walks among winding channels carved by water on the surface of the melting Longyearbreen glacier during a summer heat wave on Svalbard archipelago on July 31, 2020 near Longyearbyen, Norway. Global warming is having a dramatic impact on Svalbard that, according to Norwegian meteorological data, includes a rise in average winter temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius over the past 30 years, creating disruptions to the entire local ecosystem.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A campaign to criminalize acts of widespread environmental destruction is quickly gathering pace.

Ecocide, which literally translates from Greek and Latin as “killing our home,” is an umbrella term for all forms of the mass damage of ecosystems, from industrial pollution to the release of micro plastics into the oceans.

The term has been debated by academics, climate activists and legal professionals for more than half a century. However, it’s only in recent years that the idea has become increasingly widespread, with Pope Francis, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and French President Emmanuel Macron all endorsing the movement to recognize ecocide as an international crime.

Now, a team of top environmental lawyers is working to define it. A panel convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation will publish the legal definition of ecocide on Tuesday, seeking to pave the way for acts of environmental destruction to be incorporated into the International Criminal Court’s mandate. It could see ecocide established alongside war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the Hague.

“There have been working definitions in the past, but this is the first time that something has been convened globally and in response to political demand,” Jojo Mehta, co-founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign, told CNBC via telephone.

“What that shows is that the space is opening up in the political world to actually look at a solution like this. This conversation is no longer falling on deaf ears and, indeed, it is actually gathering momentum at quite a pace,” Mehta said.

How did we get here?

The term ecocide was first coined in 1970 to characterize the massive damage and destruction of ecosystems, although it would remain on the fringes of the environmental movement for decades thereafter.

It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that a campaign to progress ecocide as an international crime would celebrate its biggest public step forward yet. That moment came as the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu addressed the ICC’s annual Assembly of States Parties on Dec. 2, 2019.

“We believe this radical idea merits serious discussion,” John Licht, Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union, said at the time. The call was soon echoed by the government of the Maldives.

The climate crisis poses an existential threat to the island states of Vanuatu and the Maldives, with both countries facing the imminent prospect of losing significant amounts of territory as a result of rising sea levels. The actions that have caused rising global temperatures have taken place almost entirely elsewhere, however.

It’s a declaration that we have got to a point where we need to stop destroying the planet.

Rachel Killean

Senior lecturer in law at Queen’s University Belfast

Proponents of the Stop Ecocide campaign argue that a standalone law to punish decision-makers at the top level is required in order to create “a moral red line” to widespread environmental destruction.

“There are encouraging signs. You wouldn’t have believed how quickly ecocide erupted over the last couple of years,” Rachel Killean, senior lecturer in law at Queen’s University Belfast, told CNBC via telephone.

“I think there are still huge political barriers because ecocide impacts powerful states, but I wouldn’t have predicted we would be where we are today. So potentially there’s enough of a groundswell around environmental issues for us to see it come through.”

Why does it matter?

Advocates of the Stop Ecocide campaign say there are a number of benefits when it comes to recognizing the term in international criminal law. These include the expansion of international accountability and deterrence, opening the door to the enhanced rights of nature, access to reparations and improved public understanding of the scale and scope of the ecological crisis.

Members of Extinction Rebellion hold a banner reading ‘Make Ecocide a Crime’ in Parliament Square on August 28, 2020 in London, England.

Peter Summers | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“If we had ecocide, what it might mean is that you could prosecute crimes against the environment potentially without there needing to be a connection to some widespread human atrocity. You could also prosecute environmental crime that is happening at a time of peace: It is a different way of looking at what atrocity looks like,” Killean said.

“It’s a declaration that we have got to a point where we need to stop destroying the planet. The people that are destroying the planet are actually fairly few in number and are causing massive harm to our home and communities all around the world through their actions. So, there needs to be something to say you can’t do that anymore. Ecocide is potentially one part of that,” she added.

What about the challenges facing ecocide law?

There are a number of potential stumbling blocks. The international criminal law would only apply to individuals, for instance, raising the question of whether the recognition of ecocide at the ICC can, in effect, have a meaningful impact on business practices.

It is also thought some states are likely to be unwilling to place themselves at a perceived economic disadvantage by enforcing criminal penalties domestically.

What’s more, should ecocide be criminalized, countries would not be obliged to ratify the ICC’s ruling and there are several states with heavy environmental footprints — such as the U.S., China, India and Russia, among others — that are not party to the ICC’s Rome Statute.

A man paddles on a boat as plastic bags float on the water surface of the Buriganga river in Dhaka on January 21, 2020.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN | AFP | Getty Images

Stop Ecocide’s Mehta argued that a period of transition would help to alleviate some of these concerns and noted the ICC has broader applicability than one might think, with non-members able to be referred via the U.N. Security Council, for example.

When it was suggested ecocide should not be considered as a “silver bullet” to eradicate environmental destruction, Mehta replied: “I think that is absolutely correct … But the way we see it is, I suppose you could say, an acupuncture needle in the sense that there is a pressure point here.”

“At the moment, if you are campaigning for human rights and social justice, at least you know that mass murder and torture are beyond the pale. They are criminal and they are condemned. But, if you are in the environmental arena, you don’t have that. You’re standing on a void. There’s a missing foundational piece that says this much damage is simply not allowed.”

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “Ask any conservationist and we’ll tell you so.”

Mehta said that while ecocide law is not likely to be sufficient to deal with the crises incurred in many areas environmentally, “it is necessary.” She estimated it would take four to five years to put ecocide law into practice.

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