Climate Lawyers Call for UN to Make Ecocide an International Crime

Climate Lawyers Call for UN to Make Ecocide an International Crime

Is ecocide genocide?

A growing movement of climate lawyers and activists want destruction of the environment – or “ecocide” – to be treated like genocide. They believe criminalising and punishing ecocide would act as a deterrent in a way that the current measures do not.  

Last year, the Stop Ecocide Foundation (SEF) brought together a panel of lawyers and former International Criminal Court (ICC) judge Florence Mumba to draft a legal definition of “ecocide” that could form the basis for a new international crime. The publication of the definition is due in the next few months. This comes 75 years after the Nuremberg trials of Nazis where the term “genocide” was first coined. Genocide is now one of four crimes punishable by the ICC. The others are crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Once defined, the aim is to get “ecocide” added as the fifth.

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Climate Crimes

Climate extremes in 2020 have been evident with unprecedented wildfires, sea ice decline, hurricanes and record high temperatures. The 2016 landmark Paris Agreement stipulated that earth temperatures should stay within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels to prevent natural disasters and food insecurity. However, a United Nations report warned recent reduction targets would result in less than a 1% decline by 2030. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation as “a red alert for our planet.” 

Currently, only Morocco and the Gambia are on track to meet the 1.5C target. The Climate Accountability Institute reports that the emissions of the planet’s richest 1% of countries account for twice the combined share of the poorest 50% of nations. Furthermore, a UN Emissions Gap report found that a third of all emissions worldwide since 1965 have come from the 20 largest oil, natural gas, and coal companies.

According to JoJo Mehta, Chair of the SEF, herein lies the issue. ”We’re ultimately trying to change practices,” she explains in an Independent interview. “With civil litigation, companies just budget for it. But criminal law is not like that. A CEO doesn’t want to be seen in the same bracket as a war criminal, frankly. And if a CEO is basically described as a war criminal, then that’s going to directly affect business.”

'2 Lockdowns A Decade' Needed To Reach Paris Agreement Climate Targets
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Corporate Crimes

Established in 2017, the SEF’s focus is on criminalising corporate mass destruction. Examples of this include industrial fishing with its deep-sea trawler practice of dredging the ocean floor, oil spills (like the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana in 2010), and industry-caused air pollution. In addition, it is seeking convictions for deforestation, drilling and mining which decimate indigenous communities. Currently, Brazil’s Yanomami are facing mining-related mercury poisoning and 87% of Native Alaskan villages are experiencing climate-related erosion. Mehta argues that criminalisation will make global and corporate leaders think twice about engaging in destructive practices.

However, support for SEF’s goal has not just come about because of last year’s apocalyptic floods, fires and droughts.

“What’s been powerful in shifting the discourse has been the civil mobilization in the last year, whether that’s Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, the school strikes,” Mehta said. “That grassroots pressure has widened the window of what the media will cover and effectively pressurized governments into actively discussing the climate crisis.”

It has also benefited from high-profile supporters. First, Pope Francis called climate crime a “crime against peace.” Then, Greta Thunberg donated €100,000 to SEF. Finally, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle used the term “ecocide” to describe the Australian bushfires. Several members of the international community are also onboard with France, Belgium, Finland, and small-island nations Vanuatu and the Maldives all pledging support.

Crime and Punishment

Mehta is adamant that without legal consequences, governments and big business won’t change.

“We don’t kid ourselves that ecocide law is the panacea for everything. At the same time, without some kind of rule like this in place, it’s difficult to see how the Paris Agreement targets or the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be met. The finance keeps flowing where there’s no resistance.”

Other supporters argue that naming international crimes sets out what is acceptable behaviour. International court cases also create lasting records of wrongdoing and call out perpetrators publicly.

Philippe Sands is a lawyer on the ecocide defining panel. He points out that before the Holocaust, “Countries were entirely free to treat their own citizens as they wished. If they wanted to kill half their population, they could do that.” However, after the Nuremberg trials, and the criminalisation of genocide, “That changed in an instant.”


top image credit: FLICKR/ BERT KNOTTENBELD/ Wikipedia

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