Ecocide, Impunity And Polly Higgins

Polly Higgins drew the stark link between corporate actions and the extensive destruction of ecosystems in the drive for profit that discounts the people and the planet.

Image result for stroud scotland
Stroud, Scotland, Polly Higgins home

Sunday, April 21, 2019, is a day that would pass in history as one of a thoroughly needless and mindless bloodletting. On that day, marauding violent men snuffed the life out of 17 citizens in Yar Center, near Sherere Community in Kankara local government area of Katsina State, Nigeria. In Sri Lanka, multiple attacks in churches and hotels took the life of more than 300 persons in an unconscionable visitation of hate on innocent individuals. Various reasons have been hazarded as being the root cause of the murders, including revenge for attacks elsewhere and the sheer spread of terror. The truth is that murder cannot be justified and must be condemned.

Sadly, these crimes were committed at a time when the world was marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The mayhem in churches in Sri Lanka illustrated the depth of depravity that humans can sink to.

Image result for polly higgins While shock and consternation gripped communities in diverse places, a key voice for sanity in our relationship with nature, ourselves and other species quietly slipped away. From reports, we read that she passed on peacefully. We are talking of Polly Higgins who passed on at the age of 50.

Higgins passed on in the evening of Easter Sunday, a day marked by the inconceivable mass murders in churches and hotels of Sri Lanka as well as atrocious killings in Nigeria and continued violence elsewhere. She stood out as a shining light demanding the recognition of ecocide as a crime in the class of the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crimes of aggression. She was in the forefront of the campaign for the addition of ecocide among these crimes against peace which are all listed in Article 5(1) of the Rome Statute.

Ecocide is defined 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.”

I was privileged to meet Higgins in the GAIA Embassy as we fondly call the home of Liz Hosken in London. She wrote three books on ecocide, including one titled Eradicating Ecocide. Higgins actively spoke on UN platforms and to governments, reminding them that this crime was indeed on the draft of the Rome Statute up to 1999 when it was dropped at the insistence of a handful of nations.

She drew the stark link between corporate actions and the extensive destruction of ecosystems in the drive for profit that discounts the people and the planet. Her clear illustrations of the massive ecological destruction around us as ecocide quickly captured my attention. It is certain that the objective observation of the ongoing or prospective crimes around the exploitation of Mother Earth will show that this is one crime that must be recognised today and not delayed any further. Crimes of this magnitude are going on around the world, benefiting powerful entities such as transnational corporations and the politicians that do their beck-and-call. MORE

GETTING THE LAW IN ORDER

 

The article below is the last one Polly contributed to before her death on Easter Sunday.  She left peacefully, in the company of her devoted husband Ian and close friends, with a mischievous smile on her face.

Oliver Tickell meets barrister and activist Polly Higgins.

Stop ecocide: change the law
Polly Higgins departed this physical dimension on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, at the end of an extraordinary week that saw her life’s work begin to emerge into the awareness of thousands

Polly Higgins, barrister turned environmental campaigner, is a woman with a mission, and one thing she can’t be accused of is not thinking big enough. Her aim is simple: to create a new international crime of ecocide – the mass destruction of ecosystems, air, water and climate – mirroring the existing international law against genocide, the mass destruction of a people.

But why exactly do we need an ecocide law? After all, we already have a host of international environmental laws and treaties, like the Paris Agreement on climate change, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “All these treaties are effectively civil law among states,” explains Higgins. “If one state has a dispute with another over a breach of treaty obligations, it has to go to court and seek justice at its own expense. There is no one to enforce the law, the penalties are often feeble, and no individual can be held to account as the proceedings are purely between states.

“Take the case of fracking. In 2017, I took a road trip through North Dakota and northern Montana to see the fracked fields and communities. It was like driving into hell. Huge tracts of land are now broken up with nodding donkeys [a kind of pump], flares, pipelines, roads, trailer parks… The atmosphere is acrid with the toxic chemicals and combustion products. You can taste it in your mouth. Flaring was going on day and night. It was truly horrific. Now, those fractured communities may have some scope for civil litigation against the fracking companies. But they cannot stop the activity itself. Going to law is very expensive, if there’s a payout it is always too little, too late, and the companies may have gone bust before they ever pay. And all the time the business carries on as usual.

“So civil litigation is not fit for purpose for environmental destruction. This is what is known as ‘missing law’ – law that is obviously needed but is not there. And where you have missing law you get injustice. In the first RBS meeting after the UK government bailed the bank out, there was a press conference and the CEO was asked, ‘Why are you financing the exploitation of the Athabasca tar sands?’ And he just laughed and said, ‘It’s not a crime!’ That’s what we have to change. And we have to go for ‘superior responsibility’ – holding the senior officials, CEOs, heads of state, ministers, directors to account where there has been a reckless disregard of climate and Nature, or even deliberate misinformation. We have to go one step above civil law and make fracking a crime!” MORE

RELATED:

‘Her Work Will Live On’: Climate Movement Mourns Loss of Ecocide Campaigner Polly Higgins

 

Polly Higgins, lawyer who fought for recognition of ‘ecocide’, dies aged 50

“She devoted her life to changing broken laws that have failed so miserably to protect the natural systems on which we all depend. Her work will live on.” –Naomi Klein

Campaigner and barrister attempted to create a law to criminalise ecological damage

Polly Higgins established a trust fund for ‘Earth protectors’. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Polly Higgins, one of the most inspiring figures in the green movement, has died aged 50.

Higgins, a British barrister, led a decade-long campaign for “ecocide” to be recognised as a crime against humanity. She sold her house and gave up a high-paying job so she could dedicate herself to attempting to create a law that would make corporate executives and government ministers criminally liable for the damage they do to ecosystems.

Such a legal instrument could be a powerful tool for conservationists, climate campaigners and activists trying to stop air and water pollution, but earlier proposals for this to be included in the Rome statute on international crimes against humanity were dropped in 1996.

On her organisation’s website, Higgins lamented the continued absence of a law that she believed would change the world. “There is a missing responsibility to protect … What is required is an expansion of our collective duty of care to protect the natural living world and all life. International ecocide crime is a law to protect the Earth.”

On social media, tributes and condolence messages were sent by a wide range of groups and individuals, including philosophers, human rights campaigners, lawyers and Extinction Rebellion activists.

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The destruction of the Earth is a crime. It should be prosecuted

This tribute to Polly Higgins by George Monbiot appeared in The Guardian, Mar 28.  On Apr 21 came the news that Polly had passed away. Monbiot wrote

““If this is my time to go,” she told me, “my legal team will continue undeterred. But there are millions who care so much and feel so powerless about the future, and I would love to see them begin to understand the power of this one, simple law to protect the Earth – to realise it’s possible, even straightforward. I wish I could live to see a million Earth Protectors standing for it – because I believe they will.”

Businesses should be liable for the harm they do. Polly Higgins has launched a push to make ecocide an international crime

Illustration by Eva Bee
Illustration by Eva Bee

Why do we wait until someone has passed away before we honour them? I believe we should overcome our embarrassment, and say it while they are with us. In this spirit, I want to tell you about the world-changing work of Polly Higgins.

She is a barrister who has devoted her life to creating an international crime of ecocide. This means serious damage to, or destruction of, the natural world and the Earth’s systems. 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. 

I believe it would change everything. 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.


From Ecocide to Ecolibrium: The Great Turning | Polly Higgins | TEDxUppsalaUniversity

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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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Climate change activists who occupied International Criminal Court arrested by Dutch police
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

The destruction of the Earth is a crime. It should be prosecuted

Businesses should be liable for the harm they do. Polly Higgins has launched a push to make ecocide an international crime

Illustration by Eva Bee

Why do we wait until someone has passed away before we honour them? I believe we should overcome our embarrassment, and say it while they are with us. In this spirit, I want to tell you about the world-changing work of Polly Higgins.

She is a barrister who has devoted her life to creating an international crime of ecocide. This means serious damage to, or destruction of, the natural world and the Earth’s systems. 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 force anyone contemplating large-scale vandalism to ask themselves, ‘Will I end up in the Hague for this?’

I believe it would change everything. 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.

There are no effective safeguards preventing a few powerful people, companies or states from wreaking havoc for the sake of profit or power. Though their actions may lead to the death of millions, they know they can’t be touched. Their impunity, as they engage in potential mass murder, reveals a gaping hole in international law.

Last week, for instance, the research group InfluenceMap reported that the world’s five biggest publicly listed oil and gas companies, led by BP and Shell, are spending nearly $200m a year on lobbying to delay efforts to prevent climate breakdown. According to Greenpeace UK, BP has successfully pressed the Trump government to overturn laws passed by the Obama administration preventing companies from releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The result – the equivalent of another 50m tonnes of CO2 over the next five years – is to push us faster towards a hothouse Earth. MORE