Some crimes are too severe for a city, state, or even country to handle. Sometimes, the criminals are actually the people in power. That’s when the International Criminal Court (ICC) steps in. Since its founding in 1998, the court has gone on to prosecute a former president and terrorists.
Currently, the ICC investigates four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. All carry a violent element to them—and a severity that makes them globally unacceptable. Now, a panel of lawyers have come together with the hope that the court can add a fifth crime to its list: ecocide. With the planet nearing ecological collapse and world leaders doing little to stop it, making ecocide an international crime may be one way to hold people accountable.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we believe the planet deserves protecting. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. A couple of weeks ago, an independent expert panel of attorneys from around the world released a formal legal definition of ecocide, setting in motion the steps for this to become the fifth crime under the ICC. As oil executives boast about their efforts to quell climate policy and deforestation in the Amazon worsens, the public needs a way to hold polluters accountable. An ecocide law may be one way forward—if it passes in time.
International criminal law dates back to the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the atrocities of World War II that world leaders came together to prosecute German war criminals for the mass murder of millions of Jewish people. Since then, international criminal law has grown more robust to protect civilians during war, as well ethnic or religious groups from discriminatory persecution.
The newest addition may soon be ecocide, a legal term that first entered the international sphere back in 1972, but recent efforts to narrow down a definition for the potential crime add a new level of possibility. The definition is quite simple: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” It breaks down the specifics behind “wanton,” “severe,” “widespread,” “long-term,” and “environment,” but the definition draws from existing international criminal and environmental law to hopefully appeal to the 123 countries (which don’t include the U.S., China, or India) that have to adopt the definition to formalize it as an international crime. This law would make harming the environment among the worst crimes in the world—a major step in shifting public consciousness around our relationship to the earth.
“This definition is not the beginning of the end of the process, but it is the end of the beginning,” said Richard Rogers, executive director of Climate Counsel, a legal nonprofit focused on the intersection of environment and international criminal law.
Human rights are at the heart of the case for ecocide. We all depend on a healthy planet—though some more directly than others. Our connection to nature is largely implied in the definition for ecocide, said Kate Mackintosh, the executive director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA, but some impacts are explicit. For instance, damage to cultural resources falls under the definition’s classification for “severe.” As do economic impacts. The definition underscores the environment’s intrinsic value, but it doesn’t ignore the connections people have to the natural world.
“Our ability not just to survive but to live in dignity is absolutely dependent on preserving our environment,” Mackintosh said. “In our definition, we’re not asking for harm to humans to be proved as an element of the crime…so it’s sort of implicit the idea that [environmental damage] is detrimental to humanity, but it’s also protecting the environment as a value in itself.”
With a definition out in the world, the next step is to build a strong campaign so that countries sign on. That means growing support from the public and private sectors. There’s already some attempts to recognize ecocide in Europe where Belgium and France have already voiced support. So has Bangladesh and Maldives, which was the first nation to call for the consideration of ecocide to the ICC.
“Our ability not just to survive but to live in dignity is absolutely dependent on preserving our environment.”
For now, an international conversation has begun—and that’s major, said Jojo Mehta, co-founder of Stop Ecocide International, which advocates for an international legal framework for ecocide. That’s because these conversations underline the severity of our various ecological crises. To equate environmental destruction with genocide or war crimes says a lot about how this destruction ultimately affects us. To suggest someone could be incarcerated for destroying a rainforest or polluting a river sounds like pure fantasy. And yet here we are with an option to make this reality.
“While you would never go to a government and say, Oh, can I kill a few hundred people for my new business?, you can go and get a license for oil and gas drilling,” Mehta said. “These destructive activities that we know, at their worst, are seriously harming our own chances of surviving as a civilization, it makes sense to put in place some enforceable deterrent.”
With this definition out there, countries or municipalities can push to pass domestic ecocide laws until the ICC process plays out. Corporations should prepare for a future where they can’t pollute and exploit as freely as they once did. What’s lawful now may not be lawful in a future where ecocide is a fifth international crime. Actually formalizing ecocide as a fifth crime may take another five years, Rogers said, so what comes before is important, too.
There’s plenty to be done before then, said Richard Pearshouse, the head of crisis and the environment at Amnesty International who researches where environmental damage could fall under current international crimes. Existing law already allows for responsible parties to be held accountable, but that scope is limited. Ecocide would allow for more crimes to be investigated, but Pearshouse is wary of how far off that prospect is. If it’ll take half a decade to formalize ecocide as a fifth crime, even more years must pass before anyone is successfully prosecuted.
“We’re not going to see justice anytime soon,” Pearshouse said.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to see this new law—of course he does. He calls the definition a “promising development” and “brilliant.” What he wants to see is every other tool being used until then. Time is running out for the planet. Unless world leaders act quickly, an ecocide law may not arrive in time to save us.