ECOCIDE: A NEW INTERNATIONAL CRIME

INTRODUCTION

Ecocide, a term coined for the mass destruction of the environment is waiting to be made into an international crime just like other crimes in the Rome Statute, under its new proposed legal definition. An independent expert panel of environmental and criminal lawyers from all across the world has recently drafted a working legal definition of ecocide to give a push to the matter of criminalizing the massive destruction of ecosystems. The theory is that a person should be punished for destroying the natural environment. It is believed that the offence of ecocide should come under the legal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, making it an arrestable offence for anyone liable for Ecocide and that person would be liable for criminal prosecution.

Proposed Legal Definition

The legal definition of Ecocide proposed by the Independent Expert panel constituting of 12 criminal and environmental lawyers is as follows:

“For the purpose of this Statute, “ecocide” means 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.”[1]

The original proposal of Ecocide goes way back

The idea of making Ecocide an international crime isn’t something that has developed recently. The origin of this idea goes way back to the 1970s and it took decades for it to develop.

A Brief TimelinE

1970: Professor Arthur W. Galston coined the term Ecocide for the first time.

1972: Prime Minister Olof Palme, mentioned the Vietnam war as ecocide because it resulted in the mass destruction of the Environment.

1973: Professor Richard Falk became the first person to frame a definition for ecocide, when he proposed an international convention on the crime of ecocide. 

1978: UN sub-commission on prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities prepared a study and proposed adding ecocide to that study. The proposal of adding ecocide was later rejected in 1985.

1990: Vietnam codifies ecocide in its domestic law and thus, became the first-ever state to do so. Article 278 of the criminal code of Vietnam states that “Those who, in peacetime or wartime, commit acts of annihilating en-mass population in an area, destroying the source of their livelihood, undermining the cultural and spiritual life of a country, upsetting the foundation of a society to undermine such society, as well as other acts of genocide or acts of ecocide or destroying the natural environment, shall be sentenced to between ten years and twenty years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment.”

1991: The International Law Commission (ILC) included article 26 in its draft code of crimes against the peace and security of mankind. The draft states that “An individual who willfully causes or orders the causing of widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment shall, on conviction thereof, be sentenced.”

1996: ILC chairman Ahmed Mahiou rejected the idea of mentioning environmental crimes as a separate provision. The drafting committee then decided to include the environment-related crimes in the context of War Crimes.

1997: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic codifies ecocide in their domestic laws.

1998: The International criminal court statute was adopted in Rome. Tajikistan codifies ecocide in its domestic law.

1999: Georgia and Belarus codify ecocide in their domestic laws.

2013: The prosecutor of the ICC released a policy paper on preliminary examination in which environmental damage was considered to assess the gravity of Rome statute crimes.

2018: Ecocide entered into force of fourth crime of the Rome statute i.e., the crime of aggression

2019: At the 18th meeting of the ICC Assembly of States Parties, Vanuatu and Maldives called for considering the addition of ecocide in the Rome statute.

2021: A draft of amendment was proposed to include the crime of ecocide into the Rome statute, which was prepared by an Independent Drafting Panel for the legal definition of ecocide. [2]

The start of a long process

Although a legal definition of Ecocide has been proposed, there still lies a long process until Ecocide becomes an International Crime. Currently, there exist four crimes in the Rome statute. They are Genocide, Crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. But the Rome statute could be amended to add a new crime i.e., ECOCIDE but for ICC to do so, the following procedures need to happen:

  1. A definition must be submitted to the UN secretary-general by one of the 123 member countries of ICC.
  2. The majority of members of ICC must vote for the proposal at the annual assembly in December.
  3. Two-thirds of the member countries must vote in favour of the agreed final text for an amendment.
  4. Then, after a year, the vote needs to be ratified and enforced in the countries. Then ecocide will become a criminal offence in the ratifying countries and these countries will also have the power to arrest non-nationals. Hence, it will affect both the ratifying and non-ratifying countries.[3]

The amendment process from the formal proposal to ratification may take years to decades and hence, it is still a long way to the goal of making Ecocide an international crime.

Despite this, Jojo Mehta, co-founder and chairperson of the Stop Ecocide Foundation says “We don’t see any likelihood of it disappearing. The likelihood is it will actually get proposed. However, even if it takes longer than we would like … just the fact that this conversation is happening is already making a difference,”[4]

The problems that could be addressed by criminal law of Ecocide

Ecocide means the destruction of the natural environment on a large scale by wanton acts and for saving our environment, these acts need to be stopped as soon as possible. This is exactly why, the activists, environmental lawyers, and campaigners are so adamant about making Ecocide an international crime as it could help in addressing issues that are serious harm to the environment. Different types of Environmental damage could be curtailed by controlling different activities like:

  1. Ocean damage: Plastic pollution, Industrial fishing, Oil Spills , Deep Sea mining.
  2. Deforestation: Industrial livestock farming, Mining.
  3. Land and water contamination: Fracking, Tar sand Extraction, Textile chemicals, Agricultural pollution.
  4. Air Pollution: Chemical disasters and weapons, Industrial Emissions, Radioactive contamination [5]

CONCLUSION

Although the International criminal court has still not said anything on the panel’s proposal, Ecocide has proved to be a powerful idea. It has crystallized an idea that often gets overlooked in discussions of power and technology. It is a reminder of the fact that ecocide is not a victimless act: when oceans rise or forests burn to the ground, humans suffer all across the world, either directly or indirectly. So, the preparators i.e., the ones committing these acts are not blameless. According to Jojo Mehta criminalizing ecocide is a way to call time on the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystem and its inhabitants.[6] It is high time that people realize the importance of the environment and the need to stop these activities that destruct nature on a large scale.

Author(s) Name: Swetangi Ranjan (Central University of South Bihar, Gaya)

References:

[1] Ian profiri, ’Legal Experts present definition of Ecocide for adoption by ICC’(jurist.org,23 June 2021) < www.jurist.org/news/2021/06/legal-experts-present-definition-of-ecocide-for-adoption-by-icc/> accessed on 15 September 2021

[2] Stop Ecocide Foundation, ‘History’ (ecocidelaw.com) < www.ecocidelaw.com/history/> accessed 16 September 2021

[3] Josie fischels, ‘How 165 Words Could Make Mass Environmental Destruction an International Crime(npr.org, 27 June 2021} < www.npr.org/2021/06/27/1010402568/ecocide-environment-destruction-international-crime-criminal-court> accessed 16 September 2021

[4] Josie fischels, ‘How 165 Words Could Make Mass Environmental Destruction an International Crime(npr.org, 27 June 2021} < www.npr.org/2021/06/27/1010402568/ecocide-environment-destruction-international-crime-criminal-court> accessed 16 September 2021

[5] Stop Ecocide International, ‘what is Ecocide?’(stopecocide.earth) < www.stopecocide.earth/what-is-ecocide> accessed on 16 September 2021

[6] Sophie Yeo, ‘Ecocide: should killing nature be a crime?’(bbc.com, 6 November 2020) <www.bbc.com/future/article/20201105-what-is-ecocide> accessed 16 September 2021

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