Crime of Ecocide: Greening the International Criminal Law

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In June 2021, an Independent Expert Panel under the aegis of Stop Ecocide Foundation presented a newly-drafted definition for the crime of ‘ecocide.’ The Panel consisting of 12 international lawyers proposed that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should be amended to include ecocide as the fifth international crime along with the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The inclusion of the crime of ecocide in the Statute will entitle ICC to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals accused of causing grave harm to the environment.

The term ecocide comprises the Greek word ‘oikos,’ meaning house or environment, and ‘cide,’ meaning an act of killing. Premised upon the term ‘genocide,’ ecocide means the significant destruction of the natural environment by human actions. In 1970, it was first used by Arthur Galston, an American biologist, at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington DC. The term was further quoted by the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in his opening speech at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm. Since then, multiple efforts were made to include ecocide within international law. Interestingly, it was adopted as an additional crime in the early drafts of the Rome Statute; however, later, it was dropped due to the lack of an adequate definition. If succeeded this time, it will be a significant victory for the environment since none of the existing international criminal laws secures it as an end-in-itself.

Definition of the crime of ecocide

The Panel has defined the crime of ecocide as, “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.

The definition comprises two thresholds that should be fulfilled to constitute a crime of ecocide. Firstly, there should exist a substantial likelihood that the ‘acts’ (including omissions) will cause severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment. In other words, along with the damages causing severe harm to the elements of the environment, such damages must have an impact on a wider geographical location or for an unreasonably longer duration.

It is appreciable that the Panel has widened the scope of the definition by incorporating spatial and temporal dimensions to its meaning. However, they have changed their position adopted in the previous legal instruments to employ a mix of conjunctive and disjunctive formulations in the definition. In addition to its severe nature, such harm could be either widespread or long-term to constitute a crime of ecocide. Thus, any severe and widespread activity, such as chopping down huge rainforests, could be attributed to ecocide. Similarly, any severe activity whose consequences prevail for a longer duration, for example, causing the extinction of a plant or animal species, could also amount to the crime of ecocide.

Instant reading of the first threshold indicates that the ecocide definition might include day-to-day human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental damages. It raises a question – Whether humans are environmental criminals? Though, it might be true that most human actions, directly or indirectly, are continuously degrading the ecosystem around us. However, the definition of ecocide is primarily concerned with the large polluters whose irresponsible activities at a massive level are a threat to the environment. Thus, to narrow down the ambit of the definition and identify criminal activities precisely, the Panel added a second threshold, that is, the ‘acts’ causing damage to the environment must be unlawful or wanton.

It means, only when the actions are either prohibited under national or international laws or indicate a reckless disregard for excessive destruction of the environment in achieving social and economic benefits will they amount to the crime of ecocide. The second threshold hints towards an anthropocentric approach of the definition and protects a range of human activities deemed necessary, desirable, and legitimate for human welfare. To determine the lawfulness of the acts, the actions should be seen with their potential social and economic values. The ecocide definition relies upon the principle of sustainable development to balance environmental destruction with human development and prohibits all destructive activities that outweigh their social and economic benefits. It also means that the definition places a ‘limited’ environmental harm outside the scope of the definition, which cannot be avoided for achieving social welfare that includes housing developments or establishing transport links.

The proposed definition is more concerned with the massive instances of environmental damages. It does not consider small ‘necessary’ ecological harms caused by day-to-day human activities. However, it is equally essential these negligible-looking destructive contributions of humans, made in their individual capacity, should not go unnoticed. These small contributions combined with each other also significantly impact the environment in the form of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other hazards. Thus, the reckless human lifestyle is a significant issue and needs to be regulated through some international code of conduct, if not as ecocide.

Undoubtedly, the proposed ecocide definition is a remarkable effort that should be appreciated for multiple reasons. First of all, the release of this definition indicates that the time has come to start penalizing environmental offenders and create deterrence so that such destructive activities can be minimized. It establishes the responsibility and accountability of big corporate houses and political leaders whose regular investments are causing substantial harm to the environment. Moreover, this definition founds its bases upon many core principles and concepts of public international law, international environmental law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law. For instance, the principle of no transboundary harm, sustainable development, proportionality, and necessity are aptly referred to in the ecocide definition. Moreover, it also provides a sufficiently broad definition of the term ‘environment’ to primarily include any damage committed towards the earth, its biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and outer space.

Way Forward

Though the ecocide definition is a significant development, it still has to go a long way to be included in the list of international crimes. For this purpose, any of the 123 member states to the Rome Statute can officially submit the definition to the UN Secretary-General. The proposal has to be accepted for further consideration by the majority of the members through voting. Further, the text will be subjected to debates and deliberations and must be passed by a two-thirds majority of the members. Moreover, the member states need to ratify or accept the proposed text. Only after one year of such ratification or acceptance ICC may exercise its jurisdiction over the crimes of ecocide committed afterward. This entire process can take many years or even decades to get completed. It is also possible that the structure of the current definition might change in due course of its acceptance.

Today, it is unclear that whether this definition will succeed in amending the Rome Statute or not, but what can be said with certainty is that this definition will play a crucial role in building awareness and discourse around ecocide among the governments, corporate houses, professionals, and masses across the globe. With the pressing needs of humans and prevailing threats to the environment, it is the right time that the actions of the offenders should be regulated through the prism of international criminal law.

Siddharth Singh
Siddharth Singh
LL.M., Ph.D. Scholar, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi, India

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