Why 'ecocide' needs to become an international crime

criminal law pyramid
CC BY 4.0 Mission Life Force

And how one British lawyer is working to make that happen.

In 1996, the Rome Statute was signed by 123 nations. It states that there are four 'crimes against peace', or atrocities, as we might call them in everyday speech. These are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. These are the sorts of acts that no one disputes because they're incontrovertibly viewed as wrong and will be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Originally there was supposed to be a fifth item – ecocide. Ecocide is defined as "loss or damage to, or destruction of ecosystems of a given territory, such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished." It was removed at a late stage in drafting, due to pressure from the Netherlands, France, and the UK.

As the threat of climate change becomes more real, there is growing pressure to have the Rome Statute amended to include ecocide. In the words of British environmental writer George Monbiot, this would change everything.

"It would make the people who commission it – such as chief executives and government ministers – criminally liable for the harm they do to others, while creating a legal duty of care for life on Earth...

It would radically shift the balance of power, forcing anyone contemplating large-scale vandalism to ask themselves: 'Will I end up in the international criminal court for this?' It could make the difference between a habitable and an uninhabitable planet."

Right now, there is little to no incentive for companies to change their environmentally-devastating ways. If citizens (with time and money) pursue civil suits against them, they might get fined a small amount (for which they've already budgeted); but their CEOs face no lasting punishment, despite the fact that their decisions affect the wellbeing of billions.

A big part of the problem is government collaboration. Monbiot gives the examples of Trump overturning laws aimed at reducing methane emissions under pressure from BP, Indonesia giving the green light to vast new palm oil plantations in West Papua, and France turning a blind eye to the mass killings of dolphins by commercial fishermen.

One group of activists, led by British lawyer Polly Higgins, believes that the most effective way to protect the planet and humanity's future is to add ecocide to the Rome Statute. Higgins is currently working with the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu to table an amendment to the Rome Statute.

Rome Statute amendmentMission Life Force/CC BY 4.0

Because of the way the Statute is structured, any signatory nation can propose an amendment and it cannot be vetoed; member states can only sign or abstain. When two-thirds of member states have signed, it becomes law. This stands a good chance of happening, since nearly 60 member states are designated as 'small island developing states' and/or 'climate vulnerable', thus it is in their best interest to make ecocide a crime. From Higgins' website,

"These states are at the sharp end of climate ecocide (extreme weather, rising sea levels), as well as suffering ecological ecocide at the hands of corporations (eg. palm oil deforestation, chemical contamination). They therefore have an immediate incentive to propose an amendment adding ecocide to the Rome Statute."

Because of the one-state, one-vote structure of the ICC, the collective power of these nations could force it to move along quickly.

This is some of the most hopeful news I've heard in a long time, but Monbiot shares that Higgins has just been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She has only six weeks to live, but remains optimistic that her legal team will continue this important work. No doubt the island nations – that have finally been granted a tool that gives them clout on par with richer, more powerful nations – will, too.

So can we all. Higgins' activist group is called Mission Life Force, and it's a gathering point for all who sign on to the Earth Protectors Trust Fund, a legally validated fund that will help propel forward an international law of ecocide, as well as provide legal protection to 'Earth protectors,' people who feel morally obligated to take action to protect the planet.

Grand legal battles and intricate court cases do not replace the individual efforts that we make at home. All play a role in this fight against climate change. When it's a matter of life or death, every angle counts.

Why 'ecocide' needs to become an international crime
And how one British lawyer is working to make that happen.

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