Environmental Destruction Could Become a Grave International Crime

Environmental Destruction International Crime

Definitions matter and a new way to define "ecocide" could hold the earth's biggest polluters accountable. A group of international lawyers have come up with a "historic" draft definition that they hope will be adopted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). If it is, ecocide would join just four other grave offenses (war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of aggression) considered bythe ICC.

The new text defines ecocide 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."

Why This Matters

If adopted, the new legal definition of ecocide would open up new avenues to hold people and companies accountable for the climate crisis. Perpetrators of harmful oil spills, deforestation, and land loss caused by climate change-induced sea-level rise could all face court trials and criminal prosecution, not just fines. More broadly, the new definition would also position the health of the environment, and human relationship with health, at the center of international law. "It is a question of survival for our planet," Dior Fall Sow, a UN jurist and former prosecutor who co-chaired the panel, told Al Jazeera.

What's Next

The draft definition has been released, but there's still a bit of a process before the ICC is trying big oil companies for ecocide.

  • Amendment proposal: any of the ICC's 123 member states can propose it to the court charter. Once it's been proposed, the assembly votes on whether to consider it or not.
  • Draft law adoption: If the draft law gets approved for consideration, it moves to a vote by member states. It needs a two-thirds majority to be adopted into the charter.
  • Enforcement: With the majority secured, member states ratify and enforce the law, and ecocide could be prosecuted at the ICC.

The entire process could take about five years.

New Definition Builds on National Legal Victories

The possibility of charging powerful corporations and people with ecocide comes after a series of national climate court case wins, including Germany's Constitutional Court ruling that the country's climate plans weren't specific enough and a Dutch court ordering Shell to slash its carbon emissions. Taken together, there's a shift in legal precedent toward climate responsibility that can hold companies and governments accountable.

Climate Museum UK: Types of Everyday Ecocide, April 30, 2020. (Image by Bridget McKenzie.)