After lawyers around the world gathered to create a legal definition for “ecocide” in December 2020, the United Nations released a report called Making Peace with Nature, outlining the impact of human activity on the Earth and the need to implement sustainable practices. Despite continued public concern over massive carbon emissions, the Earth’s climate still has no international legal protection. The 2017 Carbon Majors Database found that 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 were from just 100 companies. This statistic is one of the many being published each year describing just how grim the future of the planet looks. 

But what if the planet had legal protection against ecocide? Although the movement has been gaining traction with public figures like Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg expressing their support, environmentalists today are still looking to add ecocide as the fifth crime against peace. But what is ecocide exactly and how would the laws work?  

What is Ecocide? 

According to an article by Maude Sarlieve, a human rights and international criminal lawyer, ecocide is defined as the “devastation and destruction of the environment to the detriment of life,” literally translating to “kill the environment.” The term was first coined in the 1970s to describe the destruction caused by the United States during the Vietnam War. The term was then used in 1972 by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme during the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, leading to the creation of the first international legal document to explicitly recognize the right to a healthy environment. Ecocide was initially included in the draft of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1991. The Rome Statute is the founding treaty of the ICC which was adopted in 1998 and has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes under international law, such as genocide. Ecocide was eventually dropped because of strong resistance from the Netherlands, France, and the UK. 

Since that time, climate degradation has been growing extensively. A 2020 report from the World Wildlife Fund found that there has been a 68 percent drop in vertebrate populations between 1970 and 2016. 

A Push from Activists and Environmentalists 

In more recent years, efforts have been made to push for the inclusion of ecocide in the Rome Statute. In 2010, the late British lawyer, Polly Higgins, proposed for the Rome Statute to be amended to include ecocide, calling it “the extensive damage to, destruction of, or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.” End Ecocide on Earth, an environmental justice organization co-founded by Higgins, has drafted a Rome Statute article that focuses on protecting ecosystem services and global resources. Unfortunately, such proposals made by the likes of Higgins and End Ecocide on Earth have not been properly addressed or incorporated on a comprehensive international level.

Environmental Laws Right Now 

Currently, only environmental damage in times of war can be prosecuted under Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute. No charges have ever been filed under this article, possibly due to the high threshold for prosecution as the crime must be an intentional attack meant to cause long-term, widespread damage to the environment. This excludes corporate and state criminal responsibility and as such would not apply to environmental disasters like oil spills during peacetime. For example, the devastating 2010 oil spill of the Gulf of Mexico released over 130 million gallons of oil which damaged over 1, 300 miles of shoreline. Although BP, the company responsible, was made to pay approximately $18.7 billion, it was not punished under international ecocide laws, although it should have been. 

A 2018 UN report found the present environmental law regime to be fragmented and unclear. International ecocide laws would change this by likening environmental damage to genocide and thus allowing crimes outside of national jurisdictions to be prosecuted. This would hold world leaders, such as China, accountable internationally for environmental degradation. 

How the Ecocide Laws would be made and implemented 

The ultimate goal is for ecocide laws to become part of the Rome Statute, which is the treaty forming the ICC in order for there to be an international guideline in terms of environmental protection. In order for ecocide laws to be passed, a member of the state (or country involved in the Rome Statute) must propose an ecocide amendment, which cannot be vetoed and must be passed with a two-thirds majority. The Chinese, Russian, and American economies rely on manufacturing that causes large amounts of environmental damage and they may attempt to exert influence on ICC members to vote against ecocide laws despite not being members themselves. However, first, there needs to be a universally recognized definition of what ecocide is which lawyers plan to have done by spring 2021. 

Why is this important? 

The severe environmental damage inflicted upon the planet is only the starting point for a range of issues today, such as food scarcity and food displacement. Criminalizing ecocide could be the difference between a habitable and uninhabitable Earth. We are slowly approaching the United Nations’ environmental programme goal, leaving us with 10 more crucial years to avert climate change. Right now, international laws are missing the responsibility to protect the earth. Adding ecocide laws to the ICC would be a proactive approach that could compel CEOs and heads of state to consider the environmental consequences of their actions. 
For further reading, check out the Stop Ecocide website.