Over a year has passed since the death of Polly Higgins, the visionary Scottish lawyer who fought for ecocide to be recognised as an international crime. Her work was groundbreaking, however, to this day there still isn’t an effective legal system in place that prevents individuals, companies or governments from damaging the Earth and its ecosystems for profit or power. Their impunity exposes a great shortcoming in international law.
What is ecocide?
Ecocide is a crime against the Earth, and, consequently, against human beings, defined as the destruction of ecosystems, humanity and life. The term covers direct damage caused to land, sea, flora and fauna within affected ecosystems, as well as the impact on the climate that derives from it. Ecocide’s negative impacts are registered on many levels as the damage isn’t only environmental; it can be cultural, psychological as well as emotional. Communities are also affected, especially when their lifestyle is deeply connected to the damaged ecosystem.
All over the world, communities on the frontline are fighting to defend their land, air, water, forests and means of sustenance. These resources are threatened by extractive activities like fracking, mining and deforestation, all of which have serious environmental and social impacts. There’s also land grabbing, land takeovers that are destroying entire regions. Often, all of these things happen while the world is looking the other way.
The term “ecocide” was first recorded in 1970 at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington, D.C. and since then, many academics and legal scholars have campaigned for its criminalisation. The push for the recognition of ecocide as a crime at the international level is the first step towards establishing a legal duty – not just a moral and ethical one – towards all of Earth’s life forms.
To this day, there is no law for the Earth’s protection that is legally binding at the international level. This means that individuals, groups and companies driven by profit can destroy ecosystems and communities without fear of being prosecuted. Individual countries have environmental laws and regulations at the national and local level, but these are regularly violated.
Furthermore, sanctions for environmental crimes – which, more often than not, are limited to monetary compensation – are very often directed at companies rather than at individuals who have decision-making power within those companies. What is missing is the possibility of assigning personal responsibility for ecocide and environmental crimes to corporate and state elites.
Making ecocide an international crime would bring an end to guilty industries’ immunity and impunity. This is the claim made by Ecocide Law, an NGO founded by Polly Higgins and Jojo Mehta. In a legal context, ecocide could be classed alongside other international crimes under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
At the end of 2019, Whilst the eyes of the world were firmly on COP25, the real action took place in The Hague where two sovereign states called for serious consideration of an international crime of #ecocide . The significance of this cannot be overstated… pic.twitter.com/oUBZ1o0yue
The Rome Statute, which established the ICC in 1998, should be modified to include ecocide. The court has jurisdiction over four categories of offences collectively known as crimes against peace that constitute “the most serious crimes that affect the international community in its entirety”. Those currently recognised are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. The latter was only added to the statute in 2017 and relates strictly to military invasions and occupations that violate the UN Charter.
Introducing a separate category for ecocide, which would therefore become a new crime against peace, would mean acknowledging the decimation of ecosystems, the destruction of communities and civilian populations, and the threat of climate change to life on Earth. Ecocide can also be considered a crime against the climatebecause, for example, some industrial activity can cause climate ecocide.
In 2016, the ICC announced that it would prioritise crimes that lead to the “destruction of the environment”, “illegal exploitation of natural resources” and “land grabbing”. According to the declaration, special attention was to be given to cases of land grabbing, such as in Cambodia, where the government was accused of having forced 350,000 people to abandon their homes and live in poverty. The court intended to consider these offences as crimes against humanity. But, in the end, the ICC didn’t formally extend its jurisdiction to include ecocide as an international crime.
Polly Higgins’ work
Polly Higgins, an expert in ecocidal crimes, co-founded Ecological Defence Integrity (EDI), whose mission is to promote the classification of ecocide as an international crime, thus prohibiting and preventing further devastation of life on Earth. EDI is the only NGO in the world working towards this goal. To this end, it administers Stop Ecocide, an unprecedented global funding platform created to finance the law on ecocide. Thanks to her legal and professional experience in court, in 2010 Higgins presented her proposal to the United Nations.
In April last year, Higgins passed away at the age of 50 after being diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.
“If this is my time to go,” Higgins told Monbiot in an interview for the Guardian, “my legal team will continue undeterred”. Her legacy, the battle to obtain the criminalisation of ecocide, continues.
In 2019, environmental information organisation Mongabay reported that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon had reached the highest level out of the previous ten years (9,762 square kilometres). Of note is the fact that it is destroying protected indigenous reserves at an even faster rate under President Bolsonaro; growing by 74 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018. The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at a rate of a football field every second. Not to mention the damage to native populations and the flora and fauna that inhabit these lands.
The mining and deforestation activities that plague the Amazon are cases of ecocide. Such environmental crimes can’t continue to go unpunished and an international law against them would be a major deterrent and could become a catalyst for finding new and sustainable ways of operating.
There is a growing amount of evidence that changes in land use are among the main causes of new infectious diseases, 30 per cent of which are causally linked to this trend according to an EcoHealth Alliance report. The transformation of forests or wetlands for use in construction, industry and infrastructure leads to the permanent or irreversible loss of fertile soil. Furthermore, according to the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), changes in land use have other negative impacts such as habitat fragmentation, biodiversity reduction, alteration of the water cycle and microclimatic modifications.
For example, Swedish nickel mines in the Arctic Circle are poisoning the ancient pastures of the native Sámi community, threatening their livelihoods. In Papua New Guinea, Mongabay reports that an international consortium wants to destroy a pristine rainforest, home to flora and fauna that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. They want to plant oil palm trees without consent from local indigenous populations.
The inability to stop the most damaging industrial activities and burning of fossil fuels are the main causes of climate change. An important report, published in 2017 by CDP Global, previously known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, which monitors global environmental data in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute, shows that as few as 100 companies have been responsible for over 70 per cent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
The Environmental Justice Atlas
The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJA) collects the stories of communities fighting for environmental justice around the world. Its aim is to make these movements more visible, collecting demands as well as evidence and bringing to light the responsibility companies and states bear for environmental offences. The atlas also aims to be a virtual space for those campaigning for environmental justice issues to obtain information, find other groups active on related problems, and increase the visibility of environmental conflicts.
The EJA maps socio-environmental conflicts across ten main categories: nuclear, mineral ores and building materials extraction, waste management, biomass and land conflicts, fossil fuels and climate justice/energy, water management, infrastructure and built environment, tourism recreation, biodiversity conservation conflicts, industrial and utilities conflicts.
The database contains information about investors, project details, the sources of conflicts and their impacts, references to legislation, academic research, videos and images.
Recently, many activists have also lobbied for ecocide to be recognised as an international crime on a par with war crimes and genocide and punishable by the International Criminal Court. According to Monbiot, the criminalisation of ecocide in an international legal context could be for life on Earth what the criminalisation of genocide was for vulnerable minorities: protection where there once was none.