How do we protect the planet from destruction? Make ‘ecocide’ a crime

Without some kind of enforceable legal parameter addressing the root causes of the climate crisis, writes Jojo Mehta, it is hard to see how global targets can be achieved

Wednesday 07 July 2021 10:56
<p> Science is now indicating that some ‘tipping points’ are being approached in the climate crisis</p>

Science is now indicating that some ‘tipping points’ are being approached in the climate crisis

The term “ecocide” is broadly understood as mass damage and destruction of ecosystems. The global conversation around it - and in particular the conversation around criminalising it - is growing fast.

The context for this conversation is no doubt clear to everyone: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) February report suggests that current emission reduction commitments will lead to only a tiny fraction of what is required by 2030 to meet the long-term temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, while island nations experience ever worsening weather events. Extinction levels and habitat loss globally show frightening figures, and at the same time those communities stewarding and standing up to protect the most biodiverse and climate-crucial regions of the world are being persecuted.

Without some kind of enforceable legal parameter addressing the root causes of these crises, it is hard to see how Paris targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can possibly be reached. Indeed, the science is now indicating that some “tipping points” are being approached and may already be irreversible (Antarctic ice loss, for example, or thawing permafrost). This is why making ecocide a crime is beginning to look less like an extreme measure and more like a necessary guardrail that could help steer our civilisation back into a safe operating space.

Governments, political actors and faith leaders across the globe are now beginning to seriously discuss this. At least eight International Criminal Court (ICC) member states (as well as the Pope and the European Parliament), have already, in various ways, recorded an interest in discussion of amending the court’s governing document, known as the Rome Statute: Vanuatu, the Maldives, France, Belgium, Finland, Spain, Canada and Luxembourg. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, comprising delegations from 179 parliaments around the world, has expressed in-principle support for an international crime of ecocide in a virtually unanimous recent vote. Parliamentary motions or proposals of law have also been submitted in a number of individual countries: Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, Brazil, France, Bolivia, and the UK.

Criminalising ecocide will signal a change in the ground rules by which the global economy operates, acting as an enforceable deterrent and channeling finance away from practices that significantly destroy ecosystems. Of course, the corporate sector will require time to adjust, and so addressing this internationally and collaboratively, with full clarity on the implications of such an approaching law, will be fundamentally important.

Recognising ecocide, and hence requiring these adjustments to corporate practice, will have three important consequences.

Firstly, that of protecting Earth’s precious life-support systems, by making severe and reckless damage to nature illegal - and therefore unlicense-able and uninsurable.

Secondly, it will stimulate innovation in a healthy direction in all sectors.  Indeed, corporate leaders in many areas are actively calling for legislation that can level the playing field - allowing the many solutions, such as renewable energy, circular economy, and regenerative agriculture, to grow and replace destructive practices. Much of what we need to transition to a stable planet is already available to us but is simply not adequately supported and practiced while the doors remain open to the old polluting ways. If those doors are closed, new ones will open, enabling the shift that we all know is needed.

Thirdly, placing serious destruction of nature below the moral red line of criminal law has the power to strongly shift cultural assumptions - to shift our understanding of our place in the natural living world, and our responsibility towards it - helping us to realise that we are not separate from the natural living world, we are part of it. In the long term, this may be the most important effect of all.

Following a request by Swedish parliamentarians, a clear and credible legal definition of ecocide has been drafted for possible proposal at the ICC. If adopted and ratified as an amendment to the Rome Statute, the agreed definition would place environmental damage on a par with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Individuals could be prosecuted for “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

The new legal definition builds on many aspects of established international criminal law and environmental law, as well as existing text in the Rome Statute. It was developed over the last six months by an independent, internationally renowned and diverse panel of experts, chaired by British-French lawyer Philippe Sands QC and Senegalese jurist and legal scholar Dior Fall Sow. The result is powerfully concise, and an intelligent balance of bold and workable - it will be taken seriously by ambassadors and activists alike.

Attention around the world has notably blossomed since the launch of definition, and we fully expect that public interest and demand for this very concrete legal solution will continue to steadily increase.

Jojo Mehta is executive director of Stop Ecocide International

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