Group Advocates for Making Environmental Crimes Equal to War Crimes

Under a newly proposed legal definition, international courts would prosecute ecocide on par with genocide.

People holding a banner reading 'Make Ecocide a Crime' in Parliament Square on August 28, 2020 in London, England.

Peter Summers/Getty Images

A global group of environmentalists wants to make “ecocide”—i.e., mass environmental destruction—an international crime on par with four other international crimes that are currently tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression.

To advance its cause, the Netherlands-based Stop Ecocide Foundation recently convened an international panel of 12 lawyers whom it tasked with drafting a proposed legal definition of ecocide for adoption by the ICC under its founding document, the Rome Statute. Published in June, the draft describes ecocide as “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.”

“This is a historic moment. This expert panel came together in direct response to a growing political appetite for real answers to the climate and ecological crisis. The moment is right—the world is waking up to the danger we are facing if we continue along our current trajectory,” noted Jojo Mehta, chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation, who says the panelists did their work in consultation with “many experts” encompassing “hundreds of legal, economic, political, youth, faith, and indigenous perspectives.”

Mehta added: “The resulting definition is well pitched between what needs to be done concretely to protect ecosystems and what will be acceptable to states. It’s concise, it’s based on strong legal precedents, and it will mesh well with existing laws. Governments will take it seriously, and it offers a workable legal tool corresponding to a real and pressing need in the world.”

According to the Stop Ecocide Foundation, the term ecocide dates back to 1970, when the American biologist Arthur Galston coined it during a speech at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington, D.C. The term has been a part of environmental discourse ever since but has never had a formal definition around which international governments and courts could coalesce.

Although the campaign against ecocide has many supporters—Pope Francis, French President Emmanuel Macron, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg are among those who have endorsed the idea of making ecocide an international crime—it faces numerous potential obstacles. For one, CNBC reports, an international law against ecocide would apply only to individuals, not businesses. Also, enforcing ecocide statutes domestically might require economic sacrifices, which many nations would be loath to make. Still, other nations have failed to sign and/or ratify the Rome Statute under which ecocide would be included, and are therefore not bound by its terms (although in rare circumstances the United Nations Security Council may still refer their citizens to the ICC for prosecution). Among them are nations with some of the world’s largest environmental footprints, including the United States, Russia, China, and India, who may still be subject to the Rome Statute.

The Stop Ecocide Foundation insists that the criminalization of ecocide is an important first step toward climate justice. Codifying it into international law, it insists, would make it easier to hold corporate and government decision-makers accountable for environmental damages and abuses such as oil spills, mass deforestation, ocean damage, or severe pollution of waters.

“After years and years of non-stop mobilization and struggle all over the world, recognition of ecocide has gained strength and public support. This recognition is essential if we want to protect all life on our planet, as well as peace and human rights,” concludes Marie Toussaint, a French member of the European Union and a co-chair of Stop Ecocide’s legal panel. “This highly qualified panel has shown … not only that this is legally feasible, but also that we can have a shared international understanding and definitions. Our role now, as parliamentarians from all over the world, is to work towards legal recognition in every single state along with support for this amendment to the Rome Statute … Justice and nature will prevail.”