In December 2019, at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Ambassador of Vanuatu to the European Union made a radical suggestion: make the destruction of the environment a crime. Vanuatu is a small island state in the South Pacific, a nation severely threatened by rising sea levels. Climate change is an imminent and existential crisis in the country.
Small island states have long tried to persuade large powerful nations to reduce their emissions, but change has been slow. So, John Licht, Ambassador of Vanuatu, suggested that it might be time to change the law itself. The International Criminal Court, could criminalise acts that amount to ecocide, he said, arguing “this radical idea merits serious discussion”.
Ecocide – which literally means “killing the environment” – is an idea that seems both radical and reasonable. The theory is that no one should go unpunished for destroying the natural world. Campaigners believe the crime should come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which can currently prosecute just four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.
While the International Criminal Court can already prosecute for environmental crimes, this is only possible within the context of these four crimes – it does not place any legal restrictions on legal harms that occur during times of peace. While individual countries have their own rules and regulations to prevent such harms, ecocide campaigners argue that mass environmental destruction will continue until a global law is in place.
By adding a fifth crime of ecocide to the International Criminal Court, the perpetrators of environmental destruction would suddenly be liable to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.
But it would also help to create a cultural shift in how the world perceives acts of harm towards nature, says Jojo Mehta, co-founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign. “Once you set that parameter in place, you shift the cultural mindset as well as the legal reality.”
Ecocide is now being discussed by parliamentarians and leaders across the world. Among them is Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who has become one of ecocide’s highest profile supporters. Macron announced that the government would consult with legal experts on how to incorporate it into French law. “The most important is to ensure that this term is enshrined in international law so that leaders are accountable before the International Criminal Court,” he said.
Greta Thunberg has backed the cause too, donating €100,000 in personal prize winnings to the Stop Ecocide Foundation.
The International Criminal Court has itself placed increasing emphasis on prosecuting environmental crimes within the limitations of its existing jurisdiction. A policy paper on case selection highlighted the court’s inclination to prosecute crimes involving illegal natural resource exploitation, land grabbing and environmental damage.
Even so, the concept of ecocide has its limitations. Richard Whyte, professor and author of a book called Ecocide, warned that an international law would not be a silver bullet that eradicates environmental destruction. Corporations cannot be prosecuted under international criminal law, which only applies to individuals, and bringing down a CEO may not actually rein in the business itself.
While there is still a long way to go before ecocide could be recognised as an international crime. Stop Ecocide campaign is currently pulling together a panel of top international lawyers to write a “clear and legally robust” definition of ecocide that countries could propose at the International Criminal Court.
Once a proposal is submitted, it would have to be adopted by a two-thirds majority vote – in practice, that means it needs the support of 82 countries. No country has veto power, and all nations have the same voting power regardless of size or wealth. A process would take between three and seven years.
Nevertheless, ecocide has proved to be a powerful idea. It has crystallised a concept that often gets lost in discussions of policy and technology. And it is a reminder that when forests burn and oceans rise, humans are suffering around the world..