With support from Greta Thunberg and now the Pope, why should we pay attention to the calls to recognise ecocide in the International Criminal Court?

What is ecocide?

If you aren’t at least vaguely aware of the current climate crisis, you must have been living under a weather-resistant rock for the past twenty years. The crisis is too complex for me to summarise here, but this report is a useful summary of the main challenges.[1] In short, we have until 2030 to ensure that global warming is kept at 1.5C to avoid sea level and temperature increases with catastrophic consequences for food, health and eco-systems. How can recognising ecocide as an international crime help us to do this?

Originating from the United States’ use of defoliants during the Vietnam War, ‘ecocide’ is comprised of two components: ‘eco’, meaning house (or perhaps more aptly interpreted here as home), and ‘cide’ meaning ‘to kill’.

The late Polly Higgins proposed a really useful definition in 2010, and it has increasingly gained traction in recent years. Higgins defined ecocide as:

“the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss 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 severely diminished”[2]

This definition has a couple of important elements. Firstly, the term “inhabitants” avoids an anthropocentric approach by recognising possible impacts on all beings living in our ecosystem. Secondly, this definition recognises that destruction can occur either by human action or it can be naturally occurring. The former has the most visible effects, for example the immediate effects of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, such as habitat loss and consequent destruction of wildlife.[3] But an interesting aspect of the definition is that it would also include indirect effects of man-made climate change. So, whilst the effects of Amazonian deforestation are more visible and readily attributable to isolated acts, this definition also includes the effect that deforestation has on the global climate system. This means that while no single person caused the floods in Yorkshire this year, we might still understand it as part of an ecocide.[4]

Why law?

Firstly, we can see the power of law in challenging and holding governments to account for climate policies, from Pakistan[5] to the Netherlands.[6] Law can be instrumental in addressing the climate emergency. So, how do we change the law to expand this protection? This is not just a problem of the absence of law, we also need to address that a problem lies within law itself — anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are separate from and superior to nature. As summarised by Jojo Mehta, co-founder of Stop Ecocide campaign and Chair of Stop Ecocide Foundation:

“CEOs have an obligation to maximize profit within the law. They may not, for example, allow mass killing to take place en route to profit”.[7]

By making a parallel with the law against genocide, Mehta highlights the gaps in the current legal frameworks that interact with the global economic order, where much economic activity is intertwined with natural resources. Undoubtedly, laws against mass killing are necessary. However, anthropocentrism within our legal order has allowed a global economy to develop, and a global climate crisis to match, before awarding the environment the same level of protection. Recognising ecocide in international law gives the climate crisis the elevation it deserves.  COVID-19 continues to show us the dependence of humanity on nature; one bat (depending on what you have read and believe) has caused unprecedented global disruption to the economy. (So much for the butterfly effect, we should have been watching out for bats.)  

So, how do we do this?

We amend the Rome Statute recognise ecocide as amongst “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”.[8]

Recognising ecocide in the International Criminal Court would create a global primary duty to stop activities that cause significant harm to the environment on state and non-state actors, as well as signatories and non-signatories. Globally, this would send a message: ‘we, the international community, take the climate crisis seriously… Seriously enough to make those who commit ecocide accountable both criminally and civilly’. We should also focus on potential effects of such recognition. Regarding human-made ecocide, this would hopefully operate to prevent such environment destruction – this would stand in the way of environmentally-destructive behaviour, globally. After all, as the IPCC have warned, we do not have time to be acting reactively to mass ecological destruction anymore.[9] Where naturally-occurring ecocide occurs, this would impose a “legal duty of care” on nations and corporations to assist those at risk or facing the ecological disruption.[10] This would counter any legal obligations CEOs currently have to maximise profit, by restricting the ways in which they can do this legally. As Polly Higgins noted, “protection of the interests of the wider Earth community will then become the over-riding consideration for business, driving innovation in a new direction”.[11] This duty of care would also supersede the dominance of voluntarism in climate governance (illustrated by the introduction of Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement), littered with self-congratulating pledges to ‘go green’. If we are to heal the Earth as one, both restorative justice and systemic change hinge on this acceptance of liability, from individuals, states, and public and private bodies.

Shifting power

In ‘Extinction: The Facts’, Sir David Attenborough explains: “I do truly believe that, together, we can make a better future… if we make the right decisions at this critical moment, we can safeguard our planet’s ecosystem”.[12]

This is that critical moment. We have until 2030 to ensure that global warming is kept to 1.5C. Awarding ecocide a position amongst the most egregious crimes of international law, whilst enabling accountability both civilly and criminally, will signal that this urgency has been recognised. This will force those considering inflicting large-scale damage to the Earth to evaluate their actions, placing limits on the destructive power they currently possess. We can hope that shaping preventative and restorative measures will constitute one of those “right decisions” that Attenborough talks of – a decision that is “right” for both the future of humanity and the Earth itself.

Let me know what you thought of this article, of the case for recognising ecocide; visit the site below, join this global movement, and seize the opportunity to “radically shift the balance of power” in this climate crisis.[13]


https://www.stopecocide.earth/


  1. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
  2. https://ecocidelaw.com/#:~:text=Polly%20Higgins%20Ecocide%20is%20loss%2C%20damage%20or%20destruction,Higgins%20to%20the%20UN%20Law%20Commission%20in%202010.
  3. https://amazonaid.org/resources/about-the-amazon/effects-of-deforestation-on-the-amazon/#:~:text=%20Effects%20of%20Deforestation%20on%20the%20Amazon%20,food%20sources%20for%20the%20species%20that…%20More%20
  4. https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/environment/climate-change-leading-more-severe-flooding-yorkshire-study-finds-1750886
  5. http://climatecasechart.com/non-us-case/ashgar-leghari-v-federation-of-pakistan/
  6. http://climatecasechart.com/non-us-case/urgenda-foundation-v-kingdom-of-the-netherlands/
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/climate-academy/2020/sep/16/ecocide-environment-destruction-international-crime
  8. https://www.icc-cpi.int/nr/rdonlyres/ea9aeff7-5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf
  9. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/destruction-earth-crime-polly-higgins-ecocide-george-monbiot
  11. Polly Higgins, ‘Earth is Our Business: Changing the Rules of the Game’ (Shepheard-Walwyn, London: 2011)
  12. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000mn4n
  13. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/destruction-earth-crime-polly-higgins-ecocide-george-monbiot