A brief insight into why ecocide should be prosecuted as an international crime

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 09:33

The debate between ecology and development is never-ending and has spanned for centuries. For the development of any country, a slight compromise on the ecological front is an unwarranted side-effect. However, due consideration has to be given to determine the extent to which the ecological depletion of resources can be justified.

Several nations, multinational corporations and large-scale companies are guilty of relentless widespread environmental destruction in the name of development. This assault on nature is the root cause of the current existential crisis; the climate emergency that we now find ourselves in. Calamities caused by climate change have already affected multiple countries making environmental destruction evidently a global issue.

Furthermore, the grim picture painted by the recently released IPCC report is a cause of grave concern. Keeping climate change under the target limit of 1.5° C set out in the Paris Agreement seems like a mammoth challenge at the current rate of emissions. The IPCC report has named this decade as the “make or break” decade. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the current scenario we find ourselves in is a code red for humanity. The actions we take in this decade will decide whether we leave behind a liveable planet for the future generations to come. There has never been a more befitting time to push forward the criminalization of the atrocities committed against nature by big corporations and multinationals on an international level.

The term ecocide fundamentally refers to the mass damage and destruction of ecosystems committed with the knowledge of risks involved. The emergence of the term “ecocide'' was during the final years of the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975). A lethal herbicide Agent Orange was used as a chemical weapon that killed thousands of people and destroyed millions of hectares of land rendering it barren. This inhumane and heinous act left the whole world speechless. The term ecocide was first used during the UN Environmental Summit in Stockholm, 1972 by the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The then Prime Minister of India, Ms. Indira Gandhi also advocated at the summit that the destruction of ecosystems should be considered a crime against humanity.

The campaign to make environmental destruction an international crime has been around for years. However, there is no law yet that regulates it under international jurisdiction. At present, as per the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), only four categories of crime namely genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crime of aggression have international jurisdiction. Just a handful of countries like Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam have classified ecocide as a crime but the jurisdiction is within their country alone. Campaigners advocate that ecocide is a global issue and one that affects the nations in a way that is disproportionate to their contribution towards environmental degradation. Therefore, it should be categorized as a fifth crime under ICC, so that the perpetrators can be prosecuted irrespective of jurisdiction.

One of the pioneers who lobbied the International Law Commission to make ecocide punishable was Scottish barrister, Polly Higgins. She pushed for an international law that would make corporate leaders and governments criminally accountable for the environmental damage they cause. Though her attempts were unsuccessful, the movement has gained momentum since her demise and has come to the attention of leaders and parliamentarians across the world.

In a recent development, a panel of top environmental lawyers convened by Stop Ecocide International, a coalition based in the Netherlands, has drafted a definition of ecocide which could contribute further towards making subsequent environmental mass destruction an international crime. As per their draft, ecocide is defined as "unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts."

However the procedure to make Ecocide an international crime has a long journey ahead. Initially, the proposal needs to be submitted by one of the International Criminal Court's 123-member countries to the United Nations Secretary-General. Once it is accepted, it needs to be supported by two-third majority votes of the participating countries, following which, the amendment text is to be discussed. Finally, the vote should be ratified and subsequently enforced by ratifying countries within a year. Once it becomes a criminal offence, citizens of countries that are not members of the ICC could still be held accountable and prosecuted despite their jurisdiction.

Ecocide to be recognized as the fifth crime under ICC could take years or even decades. But just the fact that this concept has been thrust into the limelight is a positive stride towards preventing subsequent environmental degradation. This is a much-needed solution to the dreaded problem that humanity is facing at present, namely, climate crisis. Though armed conflicts during warfare result in environmental destruction, scientists and diplomats have recognized that the major culprits to blame for ecocide are the fossil fuel heavyweights - the corporates. These big polluters violate the integrity of nature by their climate harming practices like mining, fracking etc. More and more instances of pipeline and mine explosions are being reported which cause a great deal of damage to the environment. This is more the reason to make ecocide law mandatory so that the major perpetrators responsible for climate change will be legally bound to correct their actions, or else will be held criminally responsible. This will see a decline in environmentally destructive business models and facilitate other ecosystem-friendly businesses to prosper, thereby enabling the much-needed just-transition to clean energy and a sustainable future globally.