How to Create a Legal Precedent for Prosecuting Ecocide

It’s much harder than you’d think.

To start with, you’d probably want to approach the International Criminal Court (ICC) which oversees the four categories of international crime…

Genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. 

One of the prerequisites across the board for each of those crimes is human harm. To successfully convict a person or government, you must be able to prove that their actions fell under one of those four categories and directly resulted in the harm of individuals.

At the moment, ecocide isn’t recognized by the United Nations. The Oxford Languages dictionary defines it as…

The destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action.

The natural environment could mean human beings…

But the groups fighting for ecocide to be coded officially as crime would expand “natural environment” to include ecosystems as well as other living species. 

What if we shifted the way we thought about natural disasters and tragedies? What if we named them what they are – crimes – and thus stopped passively exonerating the corporations responsible? 

Incredibly rare storms becoming predictable didn’t just happen. Record-breaking temperatures in the Pacific Northwest aren’t an accident. Rising sea levels in coastal towns all over the country – and world – aren’t a fluke. 

However, the fight to codify ecocide has been raging long since the evidence of climate change was this well-documented.

Ecocide Through the Ages

50 years ago in Washington D.C., the biologist and bioethicist Arthur Galston used the word “ecocide” at the 1970 Conference on War and National Responsibility. The context of this first recorded usage was an attempt to ban it internationally. 

Two years later, the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme predicted we’d be here. He made a speech at the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment wherein he warned that global industrialization would become insupportable for ecosystems everywhere.

In the ‘80s, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights commissioned the Whitaker Report to investigate methods of genocide prevention. 

The report asked them to consider “adverse alterations, often irreparable, to the environment – for example through nuclear explosions, chemical weapons, serious pollution and acid rain, or destruction of the rain forest – which threaten the existence of entire populations, whether deliberately or with criminal negligence.”

In fact, when the ICC came into effect as a body in 1998, ecocide almost made the list of the four international crime categories on the Rome Statute – the document to be referenced when making an accusation of crimes.

No dice, though. 

Things have sped up quite a bit since then, however. 

And this most recent attempt to formally recognize ecocide as a punishable crime by the globe’s largest governing body looks like it may actually stick.

Who Do We Have to Thank?

In 2017, the Stop Ecocide Foundation decided to champion the cause. 

The first step in getting ecocide recognized as an international crime is to propose and agree upon a definition. The Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide has spent the last six months working closely with organizations, including the Stop Ecocide Foundation, to wind up the strongest punch it can to prepare for the annual meeting in December.

The body presented its definition in the form of a draft recently:

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.

A glossary of sorts is printed below this 165-word proposal, defining the words “wanton,” “severe,” “widespread,” “long-term,” and “environment.”

Most striking is that “environment” refers to the earth, its biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere, as well as outer space.

Phew. 

No getting away with anything here.

What Happens Next?

This isn’t a linear process, exactly. Bureaucracy never is. 

First, a member country of the ICC has to submit the proposal. There are 123 countries in the club – the U.S, China, and India are notably not.

At the annual assembly in December, a majority of those 123 countries must vote on the proposal. 

Then, everyone gets to fight about the wording. Once the wording is agreed upon, 2/3s of the voting countries have to vote in favor. 

That vote must be ratified, and then a year later, the new rule comes into effect… but only in countries that ratified the vote. 

However, if you’re a citizen of a country that didn’t ratify the vote, but you commit ecocide crimes elsewhere, you can still be held accountable.

The details get fuzzier and hazier the more you learn, but the twelve lawyers making up the proposal panel feel more confident than anyone has in years that this proposal will not only be heard, but instituted.

We’ll be watching come December. 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.