Scientists estimate that emissions from just 90 companies contributed for nearly 50% of the rise in global mean surface temperature since the end of the Industrial Revolution. We have to make the criminal actors destroying our planet accountable. Lawyer Polly Higgins argues that making Ecocide a crime and holding principal actors personally responsible for their actions, is the most effective way to save our planet. Find out more about Mission Life Force here
Polly Higgins is a woman on the hunt. And you get the sense that, after decades of working towards holding powerful polluters to account, her prey may finally be in sight.
“When you’re looking at any crime, you’re looking at who are your suspects,” she tells me in a soft Scottish accent that belies the hard truths she regularly delivers. “Within a corporate context, you’re looking at CEOs and directors. Within a state context, it is ministers and Heads of State.”
“They’re the ones where final responsibility rests for making the decisions that can adversely impact many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and indeed — in the case of climate crime — billions of people.”
Climate activism is surging, with the school strikers chastising older generations for failing them, and Extinction Rebellion hitting headlines with its creative direct actions in the name of “climate justice”.
But Higgins has her own, more institutional approach to what she agrees is a looming climate crisis: making it illegal to deliberately destroy the environment. She is calling for the International Criminal Court in the Hague to recognise ‘ecocide’ as a crime against humanity, alongside genocide and war crimes. She explains:
“There’s a growing recognition that a lot of campaigning is not getting us where we need to go, and just saying fossil fuel extraction should stop is not enough. It has to be criminalised.”
That’s why, in 2010, Higgins proposed an amendment to the Rome Statute — the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. It defined ecocide as “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.”
And how one British lawyer is working to make that happen.
CC BY 4.0 Mission Life Force
In 1996, the Rome Statute was signed by 123 nations. It states that there are four ‘crimes against peace’, or atrocities, as we might call them in everyday speech. These are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. These are the sorts of acts that no one disputes because they’re incontrovertibly viewed as wrong and will be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.
Originally there was supposed to be a fifth item – ecocide. Ecocide is defined as “loss or damage to, or destruction of ecosystems of a given territory, such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.” It was removed at a late stage in drafting, due to pressure from the Netherlands, France, and the UK.
As the threat of climate change becomes more real, there is growing pressure to have the Rome Statute amended to include ecocide. In the words of British environmental writer George Monbiot, this would change everything.
“It would make the people who commission it – such as chief executives and government ministers – criminally liable for the harm they do to others, while creating a legal duty of care for life on Earth…
It would radically shift the balance of power, forcing anyone contemplating large-scale vandalism to ask themselves: ‘Will I end up in the international criminal court for this?’ It could make the difference between a habitable and an uninhabitable planet.”
Right now, there is little to no incentive for companies to change their environmentally-devastating ways. If citizens (with time and money) pursue civil suits against them, they might get fined a small amount (for which they’ve already budgeted); but their CEOs face no lasting punishment, despite the fact that their decisions affect the wellbeing of billions. MORE
Lawyer and activist Valérie Cabanes has seen situations on all the world’s continents where people’s fundamental rights are being undermined by harm to their natural environment.
I realized the direct link that exists between major damage to a local ecosystem and human rights violations against a population that relies on it for survival.
Here she describes some of these situations, analyses recent environmental pressure on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and proposes an international legal structure putting as its priority the respect of the global ecosystem to restore security and peace. MORE