What Is Ecocide? Definition and Examples

Learn about ecocide's history and the goal to make it an international crime.

Make Ecocide a Crime

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Ecocide refers to the mass destruction/damage to ecosystems or harm to the health of species caused by human activity. The term essentially means ‘killing the environment’, which is a violation of the principles of environmental justice. Those who use the term believe that humans should not go unpunished for committing crimes that destroy nature. Examples of these crimes include deep sea bottom trawling, oil spills, overfishing, deep sea mining, deforestation, and land and water contamination.

However, ecocide is not yet an internationally punishable crime as recognized by the United Nations (UN). It is not under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established by the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute states that humans can be prosecuted for only four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Lawyers, politicians, and the public are actively working to amend the Rome Statue to include a crime of ecocide.

The History of "Ecocide"


Ecocide was coined as a term in 1970 at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington DC. Arthur Galston, a biologist, proposed a new agreement to ban ecocide as he noticed the damage to the environment caused by Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military as part of its herbicidal warfare program. In 1972, at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, stated that the activities that occurred in the Vietnam War were acts of ecocide. At this event, Palme along with a member of the Indian National Congress and a leader of the Chinese Delegation, suggested that ecocide be made an international crime.

In 1973, Professor Richard Falk was among the first to define the term ecocide and he also proposed an International Convention on the Crime of Ecocide. The UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities proposed adding the term ecocide to the Genocide Convention in 1978.


In 1985, the addition of ecocide to the Genocide Convention was rejected. However, the idea of ecocide as a crime continued being discussed. The Whitaker Report, a report into genocide commissioned by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, suggested that the definition of genocide be expanded to include ecocide. Examples of ecocide during wartime include the impacts of nuclear explosions, pollution, and deforestation. In 1987, it was proposed that the list of international crimes in the International Law Commission, include ecocide due to the need for environmental protection at the time.


In 1990, Vietnam was the first country to codify ecocide in its domestic laws. Article 278 of the Criminal Code states, “Those who commit acts of genocide or act of ecocide or destroy the natural environment, shall be sentenced to between ten and twenty years of imprisonment, life imprisonment, or capital punishment.” In 1991, "willful damage to the environment" (Article 26) was include by the International Law Commission (ILC) as one of the twelve crimes included in the Draft Code of Crimes against the Peace and Security of Mankind. However, in 1996 the ILC removed environmental crimes from the Draft Code and reduced it to only the four crimes included in the Rome Statute.

Also in 1996, Mark Gray, an American/Canadian lawyer, released his proposal for ecocide to be included as an international crime, based on established international environmental and human rights law. In 1998, the Draft Code was used to create the Rome Statute, a document of the ICC that can be used when a state does not have their own prosecutions for international crimes. The decision ended up being only to include environmental damage in the context of war crimes instead of as a separate provision.


In 2010, Polly Higgins, a British lawyer, submitted a proposal to the United Nations to amend the Rome Statute to include ecocide as an internationally recognized crime. In June 2012, at the World Congress on Justice Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability, the notion of making ecocide a crime was presented to judges and legislators from all over the world.

In October 2012, at the International Conference on Environmental Crime: Current and Emerging Threats, experts stated that environmental crime as a new form of international crime should be given greater attention. To achieve this, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) led a study that aimed to define environmental crime and make ecocide an internationally recognized crime. In 2013, the ICC released a policy paper that considered environmental damage when assessing the extent of Rome Statue crimes.

In 2017, Polly Huggins and JoJo Mehta co-founded Stop Ecocide International, which is a campaign that promotes and facilitates actions towards making ecocide a crime at the ICC. In November 2019, Pope Francis urged for the international recognition of ecocide as one of the crimes against peace. He described ecocide as “any action capable of producing an ecological disaster”. In December 2019, at the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute, the states of Vanuatu and the Maldives also requested that ecocide be added to the Rome Statute.


In 2020, at the Assembly of the States Parties, Belgium called for consideration of adding ecocide to the Rome Statute. In November 2020, Philippe Sands, a law professor, and Florence Mumba, a judge, drafted a proposed law that would criminalize ecocide.

Current Laws, Proposals, and Organizations

In current times, environmental activists, such as Greta Thunberg, are playing a major role in making ecocide an internationally recognized crime. For example, Thunberg issued an open letter to European Union leaders urging them to treat climate change as a crisis and to support establishing ecocide as an international crime. This letter received a large amount of support from the public including celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and climate scientists such as Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber. The letter also received more than 3,000 signatories from 50 countries.

Additionally, Stop Ecocide International is the organization that is most involved in the push to make ecocide an international crime. Thousands of individuals, organizations, groups, non-governmental organizations, and businesses have endorsed the campaign. World leaders such as Pope Francis and French President, Emmanuel Macron, also support the campaign. Pope Francis has proposed that ecocide be made a "sin against ecology" and be added to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In May 2021, two reports were adopted by the European Union that will help to advance ecocide becoming a crime. Also, the Journal of Genocide Research, published a special issue that outlines how ecocide and genocide are connected. With support from people all over the world, the likelihood of ecocide being recognized as an international crime and being added to the Rome Statute is at an all time high.