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Euroviews. The planet can only be protected from short-sighted politics by criminalising ecocide

Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters hold a banner in central London, April 2019
Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters hold a banner in central London, April 2019 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Jojo Mehta, Co-Founder, Executive Director, Stop Ecocide International
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

We simply cannot live well, or affordably, when the living systems that sustain us break down, Jojo Mehta writes.

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Across most of the world, it is generally agreed that some issues are too important for politics. 

In ancient Rome, Cicero argued that these stem from natural, or divine law. He argued the law should work "in harmony with nature". This would stem from a universal justice we all share as part of our humanity, ​while indigenous communities around the world still embody this approach.

While we in the West no longer consider our laws to derive from such divine sources, we still agree that each of us possesses inalienable legal rights by virtue of our humanity, and the advent of international law has seen legal principles transcend national borders.

These laws and rights often focus on the bare minimum we need for our freedom as individuals, freedom from slavery and torture, the right to life, the right to a family and private life, and the protection of property. 

Meanwhile, international criminal law sets the boundaries marking what is globally unacceptable: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression.

But when considering these fundamental protections there is a huge blind spot in international law: protection for the environment.

Heatwaves, wildfires, floods and warming of our oceans

The dependence of humans on a thriving natural environment has rarely been clearer than it is right now. 

July 2023 is set to register as the hottest month ever recorded, with much of Europe still experiencing unprecedented temperatures, and wildfires raging in California, Canada, Greece and Italy. 

These startling events show that the right to a liveable environment, and the intrinsic rights of nature, are perhaps more fundamental than many laid out in international treaties.
AP Photo/Petros Karadjias
A woman protect her self from the sun with an umbrella as she passes a water mist machine to cool down during a hot day in Nicosia, July 2023AP Photo/Petros Karadjias

Less well reported have been the deadly floods in Northern India, Pakistan, South Korea and northern China, while this year has also seen unprecedented warming of our oceans, with temperatures recorded at their highest since records began 42 years ago.

These startling events show that the right to a liveable environment, and the intrinsic rights of nature, are perhaps more fundamental than many laid out in international treaties.

We can't live well if the systems that support us break down

One of the big advantages of international law is that it is far less susceptible to being buffeted around by domestic politics. 

The absence of effective international environmental law is felt most keenly at times of economic trouble, such as those the world is experiencing now. 

Long-term environmental commitments end up playing second fiddle to short-term expediency, ignoring dangerous consequences.

Everyone knows the world is far too reliant on fossil fuels, and must rapidly cut down their use if we are to meet climate targets.
Peter Cziborra/AP
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a balcony of a new housing development under construction in London, July 2023Peter Cziborra/AP

Take, for example, the UK Government’s announcement that it will be granting 100 new licenses for oil and gas drilling. 

Everyone knows the world is far too reliant on fossil fuels, and must rapidly cut down their use if we are to meet climate targets. 

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Yet the rhetoric of fossil fuel energy independence and economic opportunity still trumps long-term — or even medium-term — practical thinking. 

We simply cannot live well, or affordably, when the living systems that sustain us break down.

Ecocide laws are not a rarity any more

The movement to add damage to the environment to the list of these fundamental laws which we adopt globally is gaining pace at incredible speed. 

Laws against "ecocide" — wanton acts in the knowledge they will cause severe, widespread or long-term damage to the environment — are already in place in Ukraine, Vietnam, Ecuador and France, among others. 

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In practice, ecocide law ... would work to prevent decisions like that of the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week through the threat of legal action, thus steering policy-making in a healthier direction.
AP Photo/Olivier Matthys
Climate activists pose as they hold signs during a demonstration outside of an EU summit in Brussels, October 2022AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

Legislation is advancing through parliaments in Brazil and Belgium. As of the past few weeks, criminalising ecocide is also being proposed in Scotland, Spain and the Netherlands.

In practice, ecocide law — first in domestic legislation and eventually by international agreement — would work to prevent decisions like that of the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week through the threat of legal action, thus steering policy-making in a healthier direction.

Adoption of such a law would also apply to key decision-makers in private companies, creating a level of accountability sorely missing at present.

It's about what our ecosystems can actually support

Perhaps most important of all is that ecocide law will — in time — become so widely accepted that governments will understand it as a natural constraint. 

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We will begin to recontextualise economic policy, investment and innovation in light of what our ecosystems can readily support. 

This in turn will support lives and livelihoods, rather than putting them in danger just because our political leaders are not willing to look beyond the next election.

Jojo Mehta co-founded Stop Ecocide International in 2017 to support the establishment of ecocide as a crime at the International Criminal Court. She also serves as the organisation's executive director and main spokesperson.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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