Why we need a law against ecocide

From claiming lives to threatening the country’s native wildlife population, the Australian bushfires have had an immense impact on the drought-stricken country

Australia is guilty of ecocide.

More than one billion animals have been killed in the multi-state bushfires, and that toll is expected to climb sharply. The scale of the loss of life is unprecedented and beyond comprehension.

However, we humans are so selfish and narrow-minded that animal lives merely form a footnote to our calculations about losses from bushfires and other disasters. We tally the human lives cut short and the property damage, but animal life comes a distant third in our evaluations.

A photo from the front page of The Times last week, featuring a kangaroo in front of a burning house. More than a billion animals are feared to have been killed in the recent bushfires.
A photo from the front page of The Times last week, featuring a kangaroo in front of a burning house. More than a billion animals are feared to have been killed in the recent bushfires. THE TIMES
One billion dead animals are a tragedy for each individual animal: the lives lost and the incomprehensible suffering. Each of those animals felt pain and fear,  exactly as humans do,  and died in terror. The fact that we don’t really care about that, and barely pause to contemplate it, says much about us as a species.

However, although the loss of animal life is shocking, it is neither surprising nor was it unforeseeable.

Australia is a climate-change denier and has failed utterly to act to mitigate the destructive effects of human activity. It has ignored – and continues to ignore – the scientific consensus on what action is required.

It is the world’s second-largest coal exporter and its main political parties support continuing to extract and export coal. Politicians keep focusing on the “cost” of combating climate change, while closing their eyes to the far greater toll that is being paid for failing to act. Australian MP Craig Kelly appeared on British television this week and continued to deny the link between climate change and the Australian bushfires.

Now is the time to change that.

The late British barrister Polly Higgins led a decade-long campaign to make ecocide a crime. In a submission to the United Nations Law Commission in 2010, she explained ecocide as being “the loss, damage or destruction of ecosystem(s) of a given territory … such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.”

Ecocide covers the direct damage done to sea, land, flora and fauna, as well as the cascading impact on the world’s climate. The term was first used in the 1970s at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington, and academics and lawyers have in the decades since then argued for the criminalisation of ecocide.

Ecocide would sit alongside the four other international crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression – which are set out in the 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.

Female koala Anwen recovers in Port Macquarie Koala Hospital from burns suffered in bushfires in November.
NATHAN EDWARDS/GETTY IMAGES
Female koala Anwen recovers in Port Macquarie Koala Hospital from burns suffered in bushfires in November.

Higgins’ website, www.ecocidelaw.com, explains that there is currently no international, legally binding duty of care towards the Earth. This means that companies can destroy environments and communities for profit without fear of prosecution.

The website states that existing laws put shareholders first, meaning that the laws of individual nations are regularly contravened in the pursuit of financial returns – often with the consent of governments that issue permits to pollute.

Higgins’ vision was that a crime of ecocide would act as both a brake on companies by making senior executives personally criminally responsible, and discourage government ministers from facilitating harmful activity and make banks and investors less likely to finance it. Like senior executives, ministers would face the prospect of criminal proceedings.

Ecological Defence Integrity was founded by Higgins and Jojo Mehta in June 2017 to lobby for the creation of a crime of ecocide under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. It launched the public campaign Stop Ecocide in November 2017.

Barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan says it is time to enact laws against ecocide.
Barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan says it is time to enact laws against ecocide. Cat MacLennan is a barrister and founder of Animal Agenda Aotearoa
Four elements would comprise the crime of ecocide:

* A perpetrator’s acts or omissions causing ecocide

* The actions severely diminishing peace

* The perpetrator having knowledge of actual or possible outcomes; and

* The perpetrator being a senior official.

Ecocide law would also provide legal backing to the campaigns of indigenous communities in many nations to protect their lands.

Ecocide is already recognised as a crime in 10 nations, including the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Vietnam and Belarus.

Scientists have warned humans about climate change for decades, and we have ignored those warnings. As recently as last month, Australia and the United States worked with other nations at COP25 to block stronger action on climate change.

A crime of ecocide would prohibit harmful activity and force governments, businesses and financiers to prioritise clean generation and production.

New Zealand is included in that imperative. We are watching on in horror at the Australian bushfires, but our own action to combat climate change is woefully inadequate. SOURCE

Vulnerable Nations Call for Ecocide to Be Recognized As an International Crime

The nations of Vanuatu and Maldives are spearheading an effort for the International Criminal Court to consider wide-scale environmental damage a global crime. Photo credit: Stop Ecocide

The Pacific island of Vanuatu has called for ecocide— wide-scale, long-term environmental damage—to be considered an international crime equivalent to genocide.

At a meeting of the International Criminal Court in the Hague on Tuesday, ambassador John Licht of Vanuatu said the court should consider an amendment to the Rome Statute, which sets the court’s legal framework, that would “criminalize acts that amount to ecocide. We believe this radical idea merits serious discussion.”

The International Criminal Court is currently responsible for prosecuting four internationally recognized crimes against peace: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. A fifth could be included through an amendment to the Rome Statute.

The court’s authority extends only to the 122 nations that have ratified the Rome Statute, a list that does not include the United States, China, India and Israel.

Vanuatu, which is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, has been an advocate of climate justice at international forums for many years, but has been more vocal since 2015, when Cyclone Pam devastated the island, an example of a major storm whose impact was made significantly worse by climate change.

Vanuatu’s statement is a major victory for the Stop Ecocide campaign, which was launched by British lawyer Polly Higgins two years ago. The organization wants any agreed-upon criminal definition of ecocide to include the impacts of climate change as well as other forms of environmental harm.

Until now, Vanuatu was the only state to have formally announced it was working with the campaign, which provides diplomatic and practical help for countries to get to the negotiation table. The Republic of Maldives announced on Thursday that it was adding its support as well.

Ahmed Saleem, member of the Maldives parliament and chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Climate Change and Environment, said in a statement the “time is ripe” to consider an ecocide amendment, emphasizing how serious a threat climate change posed to his nation.

“We see little or no concrete action at multilateral level to bring about transformative changes necessary to prevent the repercussions of climate change,” Saleem said. “It is time justice for climate change victims be recognised as part and parcel of the international criminal justice system.”

To change the Rome Statute, the head of a state that is party to the International Criminal Court must submit a formal amendment. If a two-thirds majority approve the change, it can be adopted into the Rome Statute and countries can formally ratify it.

The idea of ecocide has been around for nearly 50 years and had been under serious consideration in early drafts of the Rome Statute. But it was dropped due to resistance from a few countries including the United States and the United Kingdom.

According to the Stop Ecocide campaign, it is the first time since 1972 that a state representative has formally called for ecocide to be recognized at this kind of international forum.

Jojo Mehta, spokesperson for Stop Ecocide and co-ordinator of its international diplomatic and campaign teams, said she is optimistic that a formal amendment could be submitted as early as next year, although others believe it is unlikely to happen until at least 2021.

“This is an idea whose time has not only come, it’s long overdue,” said Mehta. “It’s committed and courageous of Vanuatu to take the step of openly calling for consideration of a crime of ecocide, and it was clear from the response today that they will not be alone. The political climate is changing, in recognition of the changing climate.  This initiative is only going to grow – all we are doing is helping to accelerate a much-needed legal inevitability.”

Pope Francis has lent his support to the idea of making ecocide a crime, proposing in November that ‘sins against ecology’ be added to the teachings of the Catholic Church. SOURCE

Making Ecocide Punishable Under International Law

Image result for tar sands ecocide
Alberta’s tar sands toxic tailings ponds
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of suicide, homicide and genocide, but what is ecocide?

—Leslie P., Carrboro, NC

While the concept of “ecocide” may be new to many of us, the practice of willfully destroying large areas of the natural environment has been around about as long as humans — although we got a lot better at it using the machinery we developed during the industrial revolution. Bioethicist Arthur Galston first started batting the term around in the 1970s to describe intentional widespread ecological destruction, especially as it pertained to ruining inhabited environments so people couldn’t live there anymore.

Scottish barrister and activist Polly Higgins led the charge to get “ecocide” recognized as a “crime against peace” by the International Criminal Court. Credit: Elevate Festival, FlickrCC.

One classic example of ecocide in modern history is American troops’ widespread application of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. It was used to clear some 12,000 square miles of tropical rainforest to enable flushing out the “enemy,” despite the toll on civilians and the environment.

There are also plenty of present-day examples, including: mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia whereby miners blast through hundreds of feet of earth to access thin seams of coal; the “fracking” for oil and gas across wide swaths of Canada’s Alberta tar sands that has so far destroyed thousands of square miles of boreal forest and peat bogs while releasing hundreds of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; the dumping of crude oil and toxic waste into Ecuador’s Amazon by oil companies too focused on profits to do the right thing about waste removal; and deep sea mining whereby the use of heavy machinery to ply veins of precious metals from the seabed is ruining marine ecosystems we still know little about.

In recent years Scottish activist Polly Higgins championed the cause of getting the International Criminal Court (ICC), an independent judicial body created by the United Nations in 1998, to recognize ecocide as a “crime against peace” in the eyes of international law. Her work focused on getting the ICC to add ecocide as the fifth prosecutable “core international crime” (along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression). Sadly, Higgins succumbed to cancer at age 50 in April 2019, but her efforts to institutionalize ecocide as a major international crime lives on with other activists.

“Destroying the planet is currently permitted,” says Jojo Mehta of the non-profit Stop Ecocide. “That is how ecosystems are being destroyed every day by dangerous industrial activity, exacerbating the climate emergency and destroying our forests, our soils, our rivers and the lands that we love.”

Mehta points out that any of the 122 member states of the ICC can formally suggest adding ecocide as a major international crime. Stop Ecocide is working with small Pacific island nations which are already “feeling the sharp end of climate change” to urge ICC to finally adopt ecocide as another crime it prosecutes.

“Serious harm to the Earth is preventable,” urges Mehta. “When government ministers can no longer issue permits for it, when insurers can no longer underwrite it, when investors can no longer back it, when CEOs can be held criminally responsible for it, the harm will stop.” SOURCE

Outlawing ‘ecocide’: The battle to make a crime of environmental destruction


Picture courtesy of crustmania

CommonSpace speaks to Cath Andrews of Ecological Defence Integrity, who seek to have wide-scale environmental destruction ranked alongside genocide and war crimes under international law

AS ENVIRONMENTAL activists around the world press for greater action to combat the climate emergency, much attention has understandably been paid to their high-profile campaigns, such as this year’s climate strikes, and to proposed legislative solutions, such as the various formulations of a Green New Deal being considered in both the United States and Scotland.

However, Ecological Defence Integrity, a non-profit organisation founded in 2017 by the late UK barrister Polly Higgins and the environmental campaigner Jojo Mehta, is now working towards a legal approach to ending environmental destruction – by gaining recognition of ‘ecocide’ as an atrocity crime in the International Criminal Court.

As defined by the EDI, ecocide is the “serious loss, damage or destruction of ecosystems, and includes and climate and cultural damage.” Should this be recognised as an atrocity crime, it would rank alongside genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in international law.

Ahead of the International Criminal Court’s annual conference at the Hague in December, CommonSpace spoke with EDI representative Cath Andrews about ongoing efforts to ratify and enforce a law against the large-scale destruction of the natural living world.

Under the rules of the ICC, any member-state, regardless of size, can propose an amendment to the court’s governing document, the Rome Statue. This amendment can be adopted with a two-thirds majority. Coupled with the fact that any member state can then ratify and enforce, this makes it the only global forum where ecocide can be outlawed by those nations which suffer from its effects – and place those who continue to pollute in the dock.

Regarding the future prospects of such a law, Andrews explains: “The earliest an amendment could be proposed is 2020 (three months must pass before it can be discussed at a meeting of States Parties).

“We have not yet drawn the necessary line making ecosystem destruction morally unacceptable – and that is what is needed.” Cath Andrews, Ecological Defence Integrity

“We are working with Pacific small island states. Diplomatic confidentiality means that we are unable to disclose all developments, but leading Pacific voice Vanuatu has publicly acknowledged working with us.”

Despite the process of enacting such a law being in the early stages, Andrews argues that its eventual success is “inevitable”, given the urgency of the current global environmental situation.

“We believe a law of this kind will be inevitable at some point given the current state of ecological emergency we are witnessing,” says Andrews. “We consider it our job to speed up its establishment, and that’s why we’re working with those who have the biggest incentive to table it – the islands at the sharp end of climate change who are already going underwater, suffering typhoons and extreme weather events on a regular basis.”

While there may be a sense of moral outrage amongst many over the current climate emergency and what activists view as an insufficient response from the world governments, the EDI’s hopes of bringing a binding legal component to the crisis go further, Andrews explains – something which has proven to be a source of difficulty in advancing a recognition of ecocide in international law.

“Our main obstacle is one of perception,” Andrews says. “Those who are deeply embedded in the current economic thinking find it very hard to grasp what many land-based and indigenous cultures know as the simple truth – we cannot continue to destroy the ecosystems that sustain us if we are to survive and thrive on this planet.

“But we have not yet drawn the necessary line making ecosystem destruction morally unacceptable – and that is what is needed. In our so-called ‘first world’ culture, that line is drawn by criminal law. No amount of climate litigation will draw it, and no amount of regulation will draw it. As one head of a UK bank said a few years ago, when asked why the bank continued to fund ecocidal activities: ‘It’s not a crime.’”

Despite the EDI’s focus on international law, Andrews does not discount the necessity of legislative and campaign-based efforts to combat environmental destruction.

“All are important,” Andrews argues, “but it is criminal law that shifts the cultural moral baseline. The harm will continue until it is no longer permitted. So, while political and campaigning approaches are all hugely helpful, without ecocide law they are infinitely steeper roads to climb.

“We see this law as the key to unlocking a different way of approaching both human activity and our relationship with the natural living world.  It shifts the baseline towards a fundamental principle of ‘first do no harm’.”  SOURCE

 

Stroud leads the world as the first Earth Protector Town


Jojo Mehta, co-founder with Polly Higgins of Stop Ecocide, launches its Earth Protector Town scheme with Stroud as its first signatory. Photo by Ruth Davey/Look Again

WHAT IS AN EARTH PROTECTOR TOWN?

Earth Protector Towns (EPT) are a global collaborative movement of Towns to protect the Earth, using an interactive process including specific goals and guidelines.

In declaring itself an Earth Protector Town, a Council undertakes to collaborate and cooperate with communities, local government bodies, businesses, educational and other organisations to protect land, wildlife, air, soil and water. The town is also publicly supporting the campaign to amend the Rome statute and declare Ecocide* a crime at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

ep-towns-full.jpg

HOW IS THE EARTH PROTECTOR TOWN DIFFERENT?

What we offer the Town Council is essentially the opportunity to be part of the movement to change the international law and to change the world; top down and bottom up.

The framework will be by nature holistic, as well as participatory allowing for dialogue between Councils globally, and collaboration with participating business and NGOs. This is the time we need to act together and bring change.

A movement of towns around the globe has exponentially more impact than one town acting on its own.

WHAT DOES MY TOWN HAVE TO DO TO BECOME AN EARTH PROTECTOR TOWN?

There are five goals for Earth Protector Towns:

    • Produce a strategy and a date to achieve a carbon zero future

    • Practice the movement from sustainable to regenerative living wherever possible

    • Protect and enhance eco-systems, habitats and species in and around the town

    • Pioneer the reduction and elimination of single use plastic

    • Promote awareness of climate and ecological emergencies

The Council pledges that any future investment decisions consider the environmental practices of the institutions involved, as well as existing legal requirements on public investments.

These goals form a framework for a steering group to audit, plan and monitor the activities and projects  which will help to protect and enhance the environment in and around the town.

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Stop Ecocide co-founder Jojo Mehta comments on the UK government’s problem of perception

diconnect_jojo.jpg

The UK government just responded to our petition calling for ecocide to be recognised as a criminal offence in the UK – and the response was sadly inadequate to the ecological crisis we face: “The Government neither recognises the term ‘ecocide’ nor does it intend the suggested concept a criminal offence. There are already strong regulations in place…”

Such regulations are inadequately enforced and the enforcement agencies woefully underfunded, but the problem actually runs far deeper than lack of enforcement of existing environmental regulations. It’s about the inability to understand how intimately not only our health but our survival is linked with a thriving natural world. If environmental regulation was enough we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

Stopping the harm is not about enforcing the rules, it’s about changing the rules, at such a fundamental level that it is about morals and survival. This is the arena of CRIMINAL law. Murder is a crime because we recognise that killing another human being is unacceptable on a moral level and because it protects human life. Ecocide should likewise be a crime because large-scale destruction of nature is not only morally unacceptable but unless we protect ALL life, we cannot protect human life for very much longer, as climate and ecological science are telling us very clearly.

As a very simple example, you wouldn’t sit down with a business idea and try to work out how not to kill or seriously harm anybody doing it. There is already an underlying assumption that those are things that have to be avoided and so you don’t even contemplate a business based on them. With environmental harm, we go to the government and get permits for it. Can you imagine saying to a government minister “may I have a permit for my new business? it may well involve beating people up on a regular basis and we may kill a number of people in the course of business but it will be great for job creation…”

And yet you can get a permit for fracking. You can get a permit to rig up a 5G communications system which includes chopping down trees wherever you like. You can get a permit to burn any old waste in one big incinerator and create load of brand new dangerous toxins in the process. I’m not even sure you need a permit to put pesticides on your land that destroy whole complex soil ecosystems.

This is how deeply the disconnect is embedded. That is why people are talking climate negotiations and green new deals and ambition and mitigation and litigation. It’s all mopping the floor with the tap still running – but perhaps more graphically, it’s like arguing over where and how often you can hit a woman without the damage actually preventing her from feeding her children… and how much you have to pay her children if you do. It’s BONKERS. “Let’s try a bit harder not to suffocate this woman…” Really?!?!? How are we even having this discussion?

That’s the level at which we need to be talking. If we get 100,000 signatures on our petition, perhaps we can begin that conversation in parliament. SOURCE

Update on the campaign to promote Ecocide Law

The Polly Higgins: Sailing into British national news

Polly's funeral procession

This week, 5 cities in the UK had Extinction Rebellion boats blocking the roads to bring awareness to climate and ecological emergency.  The London boat was blue, parked in front of the Royal Courts of Justice – and was named Polly Higgins!    Extinction Rebellion hoisted a flag saying “MAKE ECOCIDE LAW”.

Jojo Mehta (above) was invited to speak about Polly and the campaign, and was interviewed by a number of journalists, even ending up on the national evening news (Channel 4).   

You can see Real Media’s excellent piece about the event below (approx 12 mins).

Extinction Rebellion has been spreading the word about us on social media for a while now, and has explicitly endorsed the campaign, see HERE.

As Jojo noted in her speech, major freedoms won in the past – from the banning of slavery to the suffragettes, from conscientious objectors to civil rights – have always had two key components: a strong grassroots movement and legal changes.

So there is a strong complementarity here… and while not every Earth Protector may want to blockade the streets, we think everyone blockading the streets will want to be an Earth Protector and help bring about ecocide law.

Ecocide TV panel show

The last month has been all about raising the profile of ecocide law, especially in the UK.  The above video is a TV panel show called RoundTable – this episode first aired on Sky at the end of June and is now available on YouTube.  Jojo Mehta took part alongside lawyers and academics to discuss Polly Higgins’ work and the potential of ecocide law.