After six months of deliberation, a team of international lawyers unveiled a new legal definition of “ecocide” which, if adopted, would put environmental destruction on a par with war crimes – opening the way to prosecution of the rulers the worst attacks on nature.
The panel of experts released the core text of the bill on Tuesday, describing ecocide as “unlawful or indiscriminate acts committed with the knowledge that there is a substantial probability of serious and widespread or long-term damage to the environment caused by these acts “. .
Its authors want members of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to approve it and hold the big polluters to account in order to stop the rampant destruction of the world’s ecosystems.
“It’s a matter of survival for our planet,” said Dior Fall Sow, a UN lawyer and former prosecutor who co-chaired the panel.
The bill requires that an ecocidal act involves “reckless disregard” that results in “serious negative change, disturbance or damage to any element of the environment”. Another section says that such damage “would extend beyond a limited geographic area, cross state borders or [be] suffered by an entire ecosystem or a species or a large number of human beings ”.
This environmental effect would either be “irreversible” or could not be corrected naturally “within a reasonable time”. Finally, in order for ecocide suspects to be brought to justice, the proposed law states that the crime could be committed anywhere – from the Earth’s biosphere to outer space.
“This is a historic moment,” said Jojo Mehta, president of the Stop Ecocide Foundation, which mandated the working group of international lawyers. “This group of experts met in direct response to a growing political appetite for real responses to the climate and ecological crisis.”
‘Never too late’
Publishing the basic text of the law is only the first step. All 123 ICC member states must vote and obtain a two-thirds majority to pass the bill into the court’s charter, known as the Rome Statute, before each member can then ratify and apply it. in its own national jurisdiction.
At this point, ecocide would join genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression as the so-called “fifth crime” that could be prosecuted by the ICC.
Mehta hopes this can be achieved within four to five years. “This is the decisive decade for taking action in the face of climate and ecological crises,” she said.
“It’s never too late. We still have nine years left of this decade. Now is plenty of time to act.
In developing the definition of the law, the panel of 12 renowned lawyers from countries such as Bangladesh, Chile, Norway, Samoa, Senegal and the United States sought a balance “between wanting to go far and wanting to be pragmatic, ”said Professor Philippe Sands, the co-chair of the panel.
“We wanted to come up with a text that states could eventually live with, and the initial reaction from the states we shared it with has been overwhelmingly positive,” added Sands, who teaches law at University College London. “We came up with a definition that we thought might work, but ultimately it will be up to the states to decide. And it is a question of political will.
Right now, companies that wreak ecological havoc through deforestation, mining, oil drilling, or other industrial-scale ventures are generally not subject to financial penalties, leaving managers generals and other powerful decision-makers protected from criminal prosecution.
The ecocidal campaign calls this into question, threatening to classify them as war criminals and thus providing a powerful deterrent.
“[People who commit genocide] don’t care as much about their PR as CEO, ”Mehta said. “The credibility of the company, the confidence of investors, the share price, etc. depend very heavily on reputation. So a key decision maker in a company thought to be alongside war criminals is not at all attractive.
Although the adoption of the bill is not guaranteed, its publication nevertheless marks a considerable step in the fight to criminalize the worst environmental crimes and place them alongside atrocities of international dimension.
The origins of the campaign date back to 1970, when a US botanist first used the term “ecocide” to describe the nightmarish effect of the US military’s decision to release powerful defoliating herbicides such as Agent orange on forests during the Vietnam War, causing cancer, birth defects and environmental ruin. Since then, prominent figures such as Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg, as well as political leaders in Belgium, Finland, France and Luxembourg, have started calling for ecocide to be recognized as an international crime.
The group of experts behind this new bill was created at the end of 2020, 75 years after “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” were used to prosecute Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials .
Its members hope its publication could mark an equally revolutionary shift in justice and accountability, just as humanity faces the catastrophic consequences of declining biodiversity and global warming.
“In international law, sometimes you have times when remarkable things happen,” Sands said. “I wonder if this could be such a moment.”