Ecocide: The 5th Crime Against Peace?

Today there are 8 billion human beings, speaking around 7000 different languages, sharing the Earth with 8 millions different species of plants and animals. This is the amazing diversity of life on our planet, which is sadly under threat from deeds of large-scale environmental damage. Some are calling these ‘acts of ecocide’ and fighting for them to be punishable by international criminal law.

The word ‘ecocide’ is derived from the Greek oikos (dwelling place, habitation) and the Latin -cida (one who kills). A legal definition, proposed by international barrister Polly Higgins in her campaign Eradicating Ecocide is “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished. In 2010, Higgins proposed to the United Nations (UN) that thusly defined ecocide should be recognized as the fifth international Crime Against Peace (the others being genocide, crimes of humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression) and therefore prosecutable in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

My immediate reaction to this was shock that we would consider activities such as fracking alongside crimes like the Holocaust. Asking for ecocide to be considered alongside the other Crimes of Peace seems to imply that the destruction of the environment and of human life should be considered on an equal footing in a court of law. I consider this to be inappropriate in spite of the fact that I am passionate about preserving the environment and admire the Bolivian Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, which grants nature similar rights to that of humans.

However, after further research and thought I realized that I had missed the point. The real point of asking for ecocide to be recognized as a crime is not to compare the seriousness of different crimes, but rather to provide a mechanism for forcing individuals to take responsibility for the environmental damage they cause. The fact that ecocide is not yet a crime is perhaps partly the reason we now have such a serious problem with climate change: no individual has to take responsibility for polluting, and the negative effects of their pollution are not felt by themselves alone. A 2010 UN-commissioned report, entitled Universal Ownership: Why Environmental Externalities Matter to Institutional Investors, found that “if the 3,000 biggest public companies in the world were required to pay the cost of pollution and environmental damage they caused, it would drain more than a third of their profits.” Clearly, forcing people to pay for their pollution would be an incentive for them to stop, or at least cut down and look for alternatives.

If ecocide were a crime, activities such as mass deforestation could be criminal offenses. The businesses and individuals who profit from these activities will undoubtedly oppose the law, but they are the few who benefit financially at the expense of everyone else. For example, everyone will be affected by the indirect climate change consequences of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, with countries such as Bangladesh suffering the most through no fault of their own. In this case, there are also individuals and communities that suffer directly: the inhabitants of that territory. That is, the indigenous people of the Amazon that help make up what the National Geographic explorer Wade Davis calls the ‘ethnosphere‘ of human existence, “the sum total of all thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, myths, intuitions and inspirations, brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. It’s a symbol of all that we’ve accomplished and all that we can accomplish. The loss of indigenous Amazonians’ native habitat implies the loss of their culture and way of life and, with that, the loss of a vast amount of knowledge and human diversity. These people are forced to relocate to urban centers and one might argue that if many of us enjoy electricity and other luxuries, then everyone deserves the opportunity to lead this life – perhaps the material comfort gained by these people is worth more to them than the loss of a small part of human culture to the rest of us. Whatever your opinion, what is unarguable is that these people have been deprived of the right to make the choice for themselves.

Most businesses and many individuals regard nature as a resource to be exploited for profit. This has led to, amongst other effects, the depletion of our oceans that is a real-life manifestation of ‘the tragedy of the commons.’ The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that over 70 percent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted; the populations of cod and other species in the North Atlantic have fallen by up to 95 percent in the last decade. Once it is apparent that fish, or indeed any other resource, is finite, conflicts begin – a point made by Polly Higgins in an interview with The Guardian. In this way ecocide may be considered to be a Crime of Peace. If it were, we could change current attitudes towards nature and force profitable but destructive activities to be replaced by sustainable ones.

Technically, all that is needed for ecocide to be recognized as an international crime is the support of at least 81 out of the 121 state parties of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the statute that establishes the jurisdiction of the ICC. However, it may not be simple to obtain agreement from the required parties since they may very well incriminate themselves. In her 2012 book Earth is Our Business, Higgins says that “it can be the owner, a minister and/or the bank who financed” activities constituting ecocide and therefore could be charged. Therefore it may not just be private actors who profit from such harmful activities who oppose the law, but politicians too.

To see how the law would work in real life, a mock ecocide trial, involving real barristers, a real judge, and a public jury vetted for predetermined bias, was held in the United Kingdom Supreme Court in 2011. My final verdict? For sure, something needs to be done now to stop the destructive activities that will cause irreversible long-term damage to our planet. One method currently used is national environmental accounting – assigning a monetary value to each natural resource and calculating the economic benefit of using sustainable rather than unsustainable practices. However, it is virtually impossible to assign an accurate financial value to a resource such as a tree, considering both its direct and indirect benefits. Neither are impacts of international economic endeavors taken into account; Canada may seem to be trying to head towards national sustainability, but the national calculations to date do not account for its corporations’ highly environmentally and socially damaging mining activities in other countries. Therefore the benefits tend to be calculated from the point of view of the individual nation or business, and not the global community. The criminalization of ecocide, with a full international commitment to enforce the law and prosecute offenders, would rectify this. Individuals, corporations and even whole nations would be forced to pay for the damage caused to the global community and, more importantly, it would act as a deterrent to those who would otherwise exploit nature at the expense of others without thinking first of alternatives.

Do you think ecocide could and should be made an international Crime of Peace? If not, what alternatives are there? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

Carrington, D 5th October 2011, Environment blog: Test trial convicts fossil fuel bosses of ‘ecocide’. <>.

Higgins, P 2012, Earth is our Business: Changing the Rules of the Game, Shepheard-Walwyn.

Mora, C, Tittensor, DP, Adl, S, Simpson, AGB & Worm, B 2011, ‘How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?’, PLoS Biol 9 (8).

Nuttall, N 2006, Overfishing: a threat to marine biodiversity<>.

UNEP Finance Initiative 2010, ‘Universal Ownership: Why environmental externalities matter to institutional investors’. <>

Ecocide: The missing 5th Crime Against Peace<>.

Ethnologue: Languages of the World<>.




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