They Speak for the Trees: International Lawyers Draft Plan to Criminalise Ecosystem Destruction

December 17, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

A panel of thirteen international lawyers are beginning to draft plans to create a legally enforceable crime of “ecocide” which would join the ranks of serious international offences such as genocide, and war crimes in the battle against the illegal destruction of the environment.

What does this mean?

Mass environmental destruction has become a common talking point in the last few years with figures such as the Pope and Greta Thunberg garnering international support for change, so much so that lawyers are now becoming involved. Professor Philippe Sands QC, a chairman on the thirteen-strong expert panel, said, “the time is right to harness the power of international criminal law to protect our global environment”. Mr Sands hopes that the panel can create a definition of ecocide that is “practical, effective and sustainable”. Jojo Mehta, chair of Stop Ecocide, emphasised that a significant challenge for the panel was to define when the offence of ecocide would be triggered. For example, ecocide would not occur from “chopping down a single tree on a village green”. Instead, “it would have to involve mass, systematic or widespread destruction”.  

What's the big picture effect?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) can already prosecute for environmental crimes but only under the context of genocide, war crimes, crimes of agression and crimes against humanity (the only four crimes the ICC can prosecute against). If ecocide becomes enshrined as a fifth crime under the Rome Statute (which governs the ICC’s jurisdiction), offenders would immediately become liable to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment

Various European states are beginning to make strides with implementing ecocide into their own respective legal systems. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has become one of the strongest supporters of criminalising ecocide. In November, his government announced an “ecocide offence” in which perpetrators would face up to 4.5 million EUR in fines or 10 years imprisonment. Meanwhile, Belgium’s government has proposed an ecocide bill with Sweden’s support which attempts to address the crime both nationally and internationally. Rebecka Le Moine, a member of the Swedish parliament, said, “If these actions should be anything more than goodwill…it must become law”. 

However, the process by which ecocide will become recognised as an international crime is anything but smooth sailing. Once the panel constructs a definition, a country must support this and propose an amendment to the Rome Statute in front of the ICC Assembly of States. Such a proposal requires a two-thirds majority vote (82 states) and this step alone could take upwards of seven years to achieve. Rachel Killean, senior lecturer in law at Queen’s University Belfast, said that this would be a huge hurdle to conquer, saying there would be “political resistance” because the crime could “curb economic expansion”. A further challenge is that the ICC can only prosecute individuals, not corporations. David Whyte, professor at the University of Liverpool, has emphasised that the criminalisation of ecocide would not be the “silver bullet” in eradicating environmental destruction altogether. Prosecuting a CEO of a corporation that commits ecocide would not necessarily prevent that business from continuing to commit environmental destruction. Mr Whyte added, “it’s not going to change unless…we change the model of corporate capitalism”.  Overall, ecocide has strong international support. The question is not if, but when this will actually become a reality and whether it will be enough in preventing the levels of mass destruction we see today.

Report written by Dan Furniss

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