Ecocide law 'will come faster than expected'

Support for the idea of recognising ecocide as a serious crime is growing faster than expected - and from some unexpected quarters.

This is not just a nice idea - it's already starting to happen.

The movement to have ecocide recognised as an international crime has gained huge momentum in recent months, according to Jojo Mehta, executive director of Stop Ecocide International.

Speaking at an event held in Glasgow outside the official United Nations COP26 climate change negotiations, Mehta said that the recent legal definition of ecocide had been “very well received”.

The definition was drafted by international law experts, including Philippe Sands QC, a London barrister for Matrix Law, and professor of University College London.

Sanctions

It 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”.

Making ecocide a crime would help to shift the mindset that nature and other people are resources to be extracted, Mehta said. “This thinking is really deeply embedded right through our culture,” she said.

The issue is now a “very live conversation” at government level in 16 member states of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mehta revealed. Interest ranges from official acknowledgement of the idea, to support from Parliamentary environment or foreign affairs committees, to others stating that they are watching developments closely, she said.

For example, in Mexico, senator Raúl Paz Alonzo presented a bill in September before the country’s senate to reform the Federal Criminal Code and make ecocide a serious crime in Mexico.

Until now, crime against the environment only led to economic sanctions, but the bill instead proposed jail for anyone found guilty.

Crime

France passed a Climate and Resilience Act in August, which provides for up to ten years in jail for those committing offences causing serious or lasting damage to health, flora, fauna or the quality of the air, soil or water.

It also obliges the government to report back to Parliament on whether it supported the recognition of ecocide as a crime which can be tried by international criminal courts.

This is not just a nice idea - it's already starting to happen.

Also in August, a group of Chilean parliamentarians launched a legislative initiative proposing a new law that would amend the Chilean penal code to introduce a new crime of ecocide which is directly based on the new definition.

It is not just governments that have supported the idea. Ahead of COP26, the International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN), which has US$59 trillion assets under management, endorsed the criminalisation of ecocide in an open letter to COP26 outlining recommendations for investors, auditors, companies and governments.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has also voiced support for an international crime of ecocide, calling it “highly desirable”.

Wildfires

However, the campaign received a blow in September when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature refused to support the idea at its World Congress in Marseilles, saying it was neither “new nor urgent”.

Still, Mehta is very optimistic. Momentum has “massively” grown over the past few years, and especially in the past 12 months, she reported.

“This is probably due in part to the apocalyptic scenes of wildfires and floods we’ve seen. Also the grassroots protests and climate mobilisations have opened up the conversation in the media to that what we’ve been saying for several years,” she said.

“Just three or four years ago, people used to say to us that it was a nice idea. But it's not just a nice idea - this is already starting to happen.

"It's definitely further down the road than it looks. And we know that when it starts coming back at us more unexpected angles, like from the ICGN. That was amazing!” she said

Ratify

The corporate world was starting to realise the importance of having legal guardrails in place to enable it to innovate. At the moment, the legal obligation of corporates was to maximise profits.

But they can only do this within the parameters the criminal law allows, so if you change that aspect, you can make change, she explains.

“How about instead of saying – ‘go make money but don't kill anyone doing it’, you change it to ‘go make money but don't kill anyone, or destroy the planet?’ The people that want to do the right thing can't, because there's no level playing field,” she said.

If ecocide was recognised as a crime by the ICC, it would have the same legal status as genocide. In order for this to happen, a member state of the ICC has to propose it, and a majority of other member states would need to support it, Mehta explained.

This would be followed by negotiations, after which at least two thirds of states would need to be in agreement for it to be adopted. Then it would be up to each country to ratify the decision, she said.

Opportunity

Once ratified at the ICC, the criminalisation of ecocide would need to be put into legislation in member state countries - potentially an efficient way of creating a new rule that crossed jurisdictions, which is essential to prevent multinational companies moving to another jurisdiction where regulations were more lax, she said.

“Moving forward together is politically safer for governments, because then they’re not the only ones making the move,” she said.

Also speaking at the event was French green MEP Marie Toussant, who is campaigning in the European Parliament for ecocide to be criminalised. She pointed to the example of fossil fuel companies who knew about climate change decades ago, yet continued to expand fossil fuel extraction and use.

“There are a growing number of states entering the action. We have one big opportunity at the European level. We need to work now, we need to gather forces - this is only the beginning,” she said.

This Author

Catherine Early is chief reporter for The Ecologist and a freelance environmental journalist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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