Ecocide: the fifth crime against peace?
Updated: Apr 28
Written by Eleanor Fraser
When the Nazis systematically killed six million Jews (1941-45), and the Turks exterminated one and a half million Armenians (1914-23), no law existed to challenge such abuses of state power. After the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) the state can no longer treat its citizens as it wishes, because people have fundamental human rights guaranteed by international law. The notion of ecocide attempts to extend this principle to the environment by prosecuting environmental destruction on an international level.
Today, the International Criminal Court exists to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes – the four crimes against peace. Established by the Rome Statute of 1998, the Hague-based court means that heinous crimes of world leaders no longer go unpunished. What is less well-known is that when the ICC was set up in the late 1990s, another law was intended to sit alongside those of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes: the crime of ecocide. Unlike the crimes covered by the ICC, ecocide is a crime against the Earth itself, not only against humanity.
Described as the (deliberate) destruction of the environment, ecocide is any activity that violates the principles of environmental justice, through extensive damage to ecosystems or harm to species. Ecocide – defined as ‘the extensive loss or damage or destruction of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished’ – was first mentioned in 1972 by former Swedish PM Olof Palme, when speaking of the Vietnam war as ‘Ecocide’ in reference to the environmental degradation Vietnam suffered due to Agent Orange and Napalm.
The law of ecocide was removed from final drafts of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998. As a result, there is currently no internationally enforceable law to protect the earth. This means that companies can destroy environments and communities in the pursuit of profit without fear of prosecution and without repercussions. Fossil fuel companies that increase their production face no consequences, nor do fishing firms that needlessly catch and kill hundreds of thousands of dolphins in their fishnets every year. Coca-Cola continues to be named the worst company for plastic pollution, and the equivalent of one truckload of plastic enters the ocean every minute, not only killing millions of fish, seabirds and marine mammals but also polluting the human food chain. Nobody is held accountable.
Polly Higgins, a British lawyer, dedicated her life to change that. “Until (ecocide) is legally a crime it’s not going to be thought of as wrong – Banks are willing to put our money – public money – into some of the most destructive practices on the planet because they see nothing wrong with it,” she told ‘The Ecologist’ in 2010. Higgins sold her house and gave up her highly paid job as a barrister to fight for a law that would make those who are fuelling the climate and ecological crisis criminally liable for the damage that they do. Aged 50, Higgins died of an aggressive form of cancer on 21 April 2019 and, although she did not live to see ecocide accepted as international law, she did live to see her call being taken up by the growing climate activist movements, thanks largely to her tireless work giving talks, making documentaries, and advising governments. Those who have taken on the mantle of her campaign to have ecocide recognised as an ‘international crime against peace’, led by the Gloucestershire-based NGO she founded – “Stop Ecocide” – intend to “continue undeterred”.
If an international and legally binding duty of care towards the Earth, holding individuals and corporations accountable, is to be established, the Rome Statute is going to need to be amended in line with the original intentions. This would be a very simple process. There are currently 122 signatories of the Rome Statute. Any member state to the ICC can propose the amendment. With a two-thirds majority (or 82 votes) the amendment could be adopted and added to the statute. Once taken up, it cannot be vetoed.
Given the current absence of effective measures to uphold climate justice, the impact of making ecocide an international crime would be significant, bringing about a dramatic change in individual and corporate behaviour. The proposed law would target those with “superior responsibility” for our planet’s environment – including heads of state, as well as executives of banks and industrial companies. Brazil’s president, Bolsonaro’s destructive attitude to the Amazon rainforest and its peoples, for example, would be considered an international crime. Since taking power, Bolsonaro has ‘layer by layer stripped the rainforest of protections’, alongside encouraging mining, logging and farming industries to take advantage of economic opportunities. The results have been brutal and a legal framework to punish such brutality is therefore not only the logical choice but the necessary choice.
The fires in the Amazon, and more recently the fires ravaging Australia remind us that not only is ecocide a crime against nature, but a crime against humanity. There is huge potential for this one simple law to protect life on Earth. It could do for all life on Earth what the criminalisation of genocide has done for vulnerable minorities: provide protection where none existed before.