Ecocide campaigners call for environmental damage to be treated like war crimes

Should the international criminal court be given the right to prosecute ecocide?
Should the international criminal court be given the right to prosecute ecocide?   -   Copyright  Canva   -  
By Charlotte Elton

Ecocide should be an ‘international crime,’ campaigners at one of the world’s first conferences on the issue have urged.

The offence is widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.

Mass deforestation, toxic air pollution, and the wanton use of dangerous chemicals all fall under this definition.

“It literally means ‘killing one’s home,’” explains Ecocide International, the preeminent campaign group on the topic.

Ecocide is officially a crime in ten countries, including France and Armenia.

But codifying it internationally is “crucial” for environmental protections, the group argue

At the ‘world’s first international conference’ on the topic - hosted last week in Istanbul - delegates sought ways to bring about this rulebook change.

“As COP27 [starts], global institutions and capital are repeating the same rhetoric and ensuring the continuity of the existing law to protect the existing system,” their concluding statement urges.

“However, it is not possible for the system to continue in this way.

“Law is not static and unchanging; it must be shaped according to needs.”

Where is ecocide already a crime?

In some countries, domestic law already criminalises ecocide.

Belgium is set to include the term in its new criminal code, due to be finalised in the coming weeks. Those found guilty of serious and permanent damage to the environment could risk a decade in prison.

In 2021, the French National Assembly approved the creation of an "ecocide" offence, threatening offenders with up to 10 years in prison and a fine of €4.5 million.

In Ecuador, the constitution enshrines the rights of nature.

Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Vietnam have also made wanton environmental damage a crime. Yet it can be difficult to prosecute and enforce - particularly in countries with corrupt judiciaries.

Codification is not the only form of protection against ecocide, however. In some countries, legal precedents prevent egregious environmental damage.

Earlier this year, Spain granted personhood status to Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon.

The Mar Menor lagoon has suffered massive die-offs of marine life due to degradation caused by coastal development.

Canva
The Mar Menor coastal lagoon is protected by Spanish lawCanva

But the new laws codify the lake’s right "to exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally," barring developers from building on its shores.

At last week’s conference, campaigners from Stop Ecocide, İklim Adaleti Koalisyonu (Environmental Justice Coalition Turkey) and other groups sought to “learn from these examples.”

Türkiye’s 1982 constitution - which prioritises the ‘public interest’ - lends itself to the inclusion of the law.

“Although not explicitly stated, the crime of ecocide is implicitly defined in the constitution,” the concluding statement urges.

Ecocide should be a crime in Türkiye!”

What would it mean to make ecocide an international crime?

Domestic law can make a huge difference. But campaigners are dreaming even bigger.

Campaigners want ecocide to be recognised as a fifth crime by the UN’s international criminal court (ICC), adding it to the four core crimes (crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression) under the court’s mandate.

Currently, the UN Security Council or a ratifying state can refer a case to the ICC. 123 States have ratified the ICC, meaning they agree to cooperate with its edicts.

If the court was given the authority to look into ecocide, states might be able to refer powerful politicians for environmental vandalism.

For example, states and NGOs could recommend the prosecution of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for his mass deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

The ICC has no jurisdiction to prosecute companies, but it could in principle prosecute company executives for crimes against nature.

This strategy might be difficult to realise. Two-thirds of the countries recognising the UN’s international criminal court would need to approve adding ecocide as an offence. That means more than 80 countries would need to give their approval.

Nonetheless, it could be a game changer, the Turkish conference concluded.

“The normative power of laws can reach far beyond litigation,” they declared.

“Ecocide needs to be criminalised in all legal processes in order to protect the rights of nature and punish crimes against nature.”