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The Law of ecocide

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Ecocide refers to criminalised mass damage or destruction of ecosystems, usually committed by human agency with knowledge of the risks.

The concept of ecocide began to emerge in the final years of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), when the scars of the battles and their negative effects were imprinted on the territory. The term was formally introduced in 1970 by American biologist, Arthur Galston at the Conference on War and National Responsibility. In 1988 ecocide was removed from the list of crimes judged by the International Criminal Court.

International laws that protect nature already exist. However, the proponents of the international law of ecocide argue that they don't go far enough, since the protection of human interests surpasses that of biodiversity. By enforcing the law of ecocide, lawyers would be provided with the valid tools to act and speak unanimously to protect the environment and contribute to a change in mindset regarding no longer treating nature as property but as an equal partner.

Various countries have laws that protect the environment. For instance, in Kenya plastic products are banned and in the USA there is a “Clean Water Act” which regulates the discharge of pollutants in US waters and their quality standards. The problem is that there’s a huge variation of laws across countries, which may not intersect and thus render the process of ecological improvement more time-consuming and retrogressive. The alleged solution is an international law that would aid the protection of our ecosystem.

However, the law of ecocide is controversial and characterised as “a radical idea that merits serious discussion”. Some argue that it must be listed as the fifth crime against peace, among genocide, crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. More than 99% of the French citizen’s assembly (150 people selected by lot to guide the country’s climate policy) voted in favor of the law and urged the government to consult legal experts on how to incorporate it into the french judicial system. Campaigners, on the other hand, claim that it is a reasonable decision; no one should go unpunished for destroying the natural world. They believe that unless a global law is in place, mass environmental destruction will continue.

In December 2019, at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union suggested the criminalization of environmental destruction. Almost a year later, in November 2020 international lawyers chaired by British law professor, Philippe Sands and Zambian judge Florence Mumba, started drafting a proposed law criminalizing ecocide. Today, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam— have classified ecocide as a crime within their borders. The UN, however, has not yet accepted it as an internationally punishable crime.

While the stable condition of the environment is crucial, so is the life of the people who inhabit it. Precisely, people who live in poverty, possibly in LEDCs, may farm cattle as their only source of income or grow products that cause deforestation. At the same time, people may cause environmental problems unintentionally. This means, it would be somewhat unfair to equate a crime against the environment and genocide.

The bottom line is that the environment should be protected at all costs, perhaps under a legal framework to ensure obedience and actual improvement. Right now, the environmental law doesn’t fulfill its aim, since it remains in the civil arena. That is why the law of ecocide might be the only, internationally scoped solution. Is it ethical, though, to consider it equal to crimes against peace and let defendants suffer its harsh consequences? Doesn’t it contradict international processes like the Paris Accord in which nations set their own schemes eg. emissions reduction targets? What side-effects will capitalist firms that generate negative production externalities face? How will countries find common ground and mutually accept the law when many fail to adhere to the UN’s climate objectives?

The following link mentions the ecocide law in national jurisdiction

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