Extinction Rebellion climate protests spread across UK

Demonstrators disrupt five UK cities calling for legal recognition of ‘ecocide’ as an international crime.


Hazel Shearing / BuzzFeed News

London – As activists erected the mast of a boat emblazonedwith “act now”, hundred of climate change protesters gathered in front of the vessel blocking traffic on The Strand, one of the UK capital’s major arteries.

A similar boat, now a symbol of the Extinction Rebellion protests, blocked Piccadilly Circus in April when the climate activist group brought much of London to a standstill for 10 days.

The group kicked off a new round of demonstrations across the UK on Monday targeting five cities – London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol and Leeds – with creative and civil disobedience action through to Friday.

They aim to cause disruption to raise awareness of the climate crisis and urge the government to enact policy measures aimed at achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2025. Action in each city focuses on a different theme, including “climate refugees” and rising sea levels.

In London, protesters at the Royal Court of Justice demanded the “legal system take responsibility in this crisis” and called for “ecocide” to become an internationally recognised crime.

“At the moment, the damage and destruction to our planet that continues day by day does so because it’s permitted,” Jojo Mehta, director of a campaign called “Stop ecocide: change the law”, told Al Jazeera.

Mehta, a longtime environmental activist, cofounded the campaign with Polly Higgins, a lawyer who died of cancer in April after spending a decade calling for ecological damage to be criminalised, so governments and corporations that are responsible could be held to account.

‘An achievable route’

She said such criminalisation could be “straightforward” at the international level. It would require an amendment to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, adding ecocide to a list of existing international crimes.

“Any head of state that is a member, no matter how small, can propose an amendment to the Rome Statute, and there’s no veto to that,” Mehta explained.

“Once it’s tabled, it’s just a question of adding signatures. It’s an achievable route,” she added, before being called on board the boat, named after her friend, to deliver a speech.

Extinction rebellion protest [Ylenia Gostoli]
Extinction Rebellion protesters block The Strand in central London [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

As performers and speakers hit an improvised stage, some activists made banners while others glued their arms together, linking their hands with a black tube symbolising an oil pipe. Five police vans were positioned on the road nearby, blocking their route to Waterloo Bridge.

Following Extinction Rebellion’s previous round of climate protests, the UK Parliament declared a “climate emergency”, passing a non-legally binding motion tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In June, the UK was the first country to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 – either by avoiding emissions or offsetting them with projects aimed at soaking up carbon dioxide. But Extinction Rebellion called this target too little, too late. MORE

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Polly Higgins — Meet the Lawyer Taking on Big Oil’s ‘Crimes Against Humanity’

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

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.”

MORE

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MISSION LIFE FORCE

Why ‘ecocide’ needs to become an international crime

And how one British lawyer is working to make that happen.

criminal law pyramidCC 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.

Rome Statute amendment

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

VALÉRIE CABANES: ICC SHOULD RECOGNIZE THE CRIME OF ECOCIDE

Valérie Cabanes

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