What is ‘ecocide’ and why did Extinction Rebellion park their boat outside the law courts?

Oxford Circus boat
Protesters occupied Oxford Circus as part of Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. Getty Images

Earlier this week Extinction Rebellion parked a blue boat outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and occupied the busy London street with a sit-down protest, causing traffic jams and commuter chaos. It came at the start of a week of protest events around the country.

This is not the first time the non-violent environmental protest group have caused disruption in London. In April this year, they occupied Oxford Circus (where they parked a pink boat) and brought traffic on Waterloo Bridge to a standstill with 11 days of protests that the group described as the ‘biggest act of civil disobedience in recent British history’.

But while some protesters have been arrested for public order offences, the demonstration outside the High Court was not related to any of those cases. Instead, it was in memory of an environmental lawyer called Polly Higgins who died earlier this year, and (among other demands) to promote her proposal for a new international law criminalising ‘ecocide’.

What is ‘ecocide’?

According to the Stop Ecocide campaign, ‘Ecocide is serious loss, damage or destruction of ecosystems including climate and cultural damage.  We believe ecocide should be recognised as an atrocity crime at the International Criminal Court – alongside Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.’

A more legalistic definition of ecocide states that it involves ‘loss or damage to, or destruction of ecosystem(s) of a given territory(ies), such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.’ (‘Peaceful enjoyment’ in this context means ‘peace, health and cultural integrity’.)

That definition comes from the website Ecocide Law which further explains that ‘Despite the existence of many international agreements – codes of conduct, UN Resolutions, Treaties, Conventions, Protocols etc – the harm is escalating. Not one of these international agreements prohibits ecocide. The power of ecocide crime is that it creates a legal duty of care that holds persons of “superior responsibility” to account in a criminal court of law.’

They argue that if ecocide is established as an international crime, prosecutions could be brought by nations who are signatories to the Rome Statute, under which the International Criminal Court operates.

A model law

model law has been drafted that would amend the Rome Statute to create a specific offence of ecocide. It would create ‘an international and transboundary duty of care’ both on governments or relevant ministers and businesses who exercise rights over a given territory to ‘ensure ecocide does not occur’.

The statute currently recognises four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and (since 2010) the crime of aggression. The ICC can only investigate and prosecute those crimes in situations where states are unable or unwilling to do so themselves.

Any signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court can propose an amendment, but such an amendment requires the support of a two-thirds majority of the states parties, and will not enter into force until it has been ratified by seven-eighths of the states parties. This process is likely to take some time, even if a state party takes the first step of proposing the necessary amendment. However, it has been done before, by the addition of the crime of aggression in 2010. So it is certainly not impossible.

Can it work?

Although it may sound unfamiliar, the concept of ecocide is not new. Use of the term goes back half a century, to the early 1970s when the use of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were condemned by environmentalists as a form of ecocide. It appears to have been included in the early versions of the Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind (as the Rome Statute was initially known), but was dropped by the time it had been formalised and signed as the Rome Statute of the International Court in 1998.

Polly Higgins proposed adding it back in to the Statute at the United Nations in 2010 and continued to campaign for such an amendment, most recently at the Hague Talks to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2018. But it is clear that such amendment could be a long and drawn out process and, even if successful, it could be many years before any prosecutions were concluded.

How effective would such a remedy be as a deterrent to environmental destruction which, by its nature, needs both urgent and concerted international action. Is transnational criminal law really the best instrument to use? MORE

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.

Extinction Rebellion boat named in memory of Stroud eco-warrior Polly Higgins

A BLUE boat named after Stroud eco-warrior Polly Higgins was used to block traffic in this week’s Extinction Rebellion protests.

The ‘Polly Higgins’, named after the Stroud based lawyer who campaigned for an international crime of ecocide, had been parked outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London since Monday as part of a week-long protest.

But as of 7.40am this morning, Extinction Rebellion boats have been banned from London, after the Metropolitan Police imposed a new condition on the climate change protests.

A force spokesman said: “The information and intelligence available at this time means that the Met feels this action is necessary in order to prevent disruption.”

Met commander Jane Connors said: “The condition imposed today is limited and absolutely allows lawful protests to continue.

“My officers continue to engage with those exercising their right to protest however, we need to balance this with the rights of those wishing to go about their daily lives and action will be taken against those who choose to ignore this condition and/or break the law.”

The Polly Higgins was one of five boats used by protesters to stop traffic in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, and London as part of a five-day ‘summer uprising’.

Jojo Mehta, Polly’s friend and colleague, said: “I know that whatever dimension she’s in, she’s smiling at the fact that this boat has been named after her by Extinction Rebellion.

“It’s absolutely resonant that this is in front of the Royal Courts because Polly was of course a lawyer.”

In a statement Extinction Rebellion said that they were protesting outside the Royal Courts of Justice ‘to demand the legal system take responsibility in this crisis, and ensure the safety of future generations’ environment, especially when deliberate.

They said they are there with ‘a clear and simple demand: make ecocide law’.

“In making ecocide law, the role the UK legal system can play in averting catastrophe is clear.”  SOURCE


Polly Higgins and the Ecocide Law

“I began to realise that rights in isolation are not enough. If you have rights, there are corresponding duties and obligations – it’s like two sides of the coin. And what gives enforcement to your rights are the responsibilities that are put in place in criminal law. So, your right to life is governed and protected by the [law against] murder, or homicide – or, at a collective level, genocide.” — Polly Higgins

Image result for polly higgin earth's lawyer
Polly Higgins died on 21/4/2019 aged 50 but not her work. Ecocide is her legacy to all of us, let’s honour it.

Let’s turn this sad event into a celebration of the wonderful woman she was and her brilliant work she did as a barrister for the environment by telling everyone about the ecocide law. Thereby we can become enough to insist that all our governments across the world recognise it as a law. Ecocide is her legacy to all of us, let’s honour it.

For all those who haven’t heard about Polly Higgins and her ecocide law let’s start with a short introduction. You can find more about Polly Higgins and the ecocide law on her website. As Polly Higgins was a barrister she used her expertise to engage in protecting our environment. She was so much committed that she gave up her house and her job to focus on saving our planet and thereby human kind. Thus she developed the ecocide law which would recognise harming our environment as a criminal act on an international level that allows to prosecute it. Therefore, she intended that ecocide law should be a part of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – besides genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression – where those core crimes are established. It is important that it becomes a part of an international law as those who commit these crimes act globally and are not prosecuted by their countries or any other country. Polly Higgins considered ecocide as a crime against humanity and so it should be recognised and prosecuted. It is now our task to bring her ideas and work to life.

Most of the actions destroying the planet we are all a part of are carried out by a small group of rich people. Some examples of destruction are already mentioned by George Monbiot in his wonderful Guardian article about Polly Higgins. These few people do it for their personal advantage and as Naomi Klein convincingly explains in her books these people not only cash in for example on the oil they also take the destruction of our environment and the thereby resulting chaos into account. It is called disaster capitalism and of course they profit from the destruction they cause as well. Until now they get away with ecocide as there are no laws to hold them liable. This has to change. MORE


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.

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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



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


‘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.