Ecocide: the next logical step?

Photo from Janusz Maniak on Unsplash

Few people have currently heard of the term ‘ecocide’. But it’s time to get familiar with it, as work has begun in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague to officially make it an international crime. This will give it the same status as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression, established under the 1998 Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty.

What is ecocide?

According to the campaign group Stop Ecocide, ecocide constitutes ‘mass damage and destruction of ecosystems – harm to nature which is widespread, severe or systematic’. Under this definition falls a number of environmentally harmful practices, ranging from deforestation to nuclear weapons, oil spills to plastic pollution.

In November 2020, an ICC panel, convened by the Stop Ecocide group and a number of Swedish parliamentarians, met to create the first formal legal definition of ecocide. Such a move would be key in making the international crime of ecocide conceivable, as many argue the current definition provided by Stop Ecocide fails to meet the criteria of a law being ‘sufficiently clear and certain’.


Recent moves to formally criminalise ecocide mark major developments, but the idea itself is nothing new. The term was first conceived by Professor Arthur W. Galston in 1970, at the Washington Conference on War and National Responsibility. He was concerned with the harmful effects of early versions of the chemical weapon ‘Agent Orange’ to surrounding plant life. Only two years later, the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme first condemned the Vietnam War as ecocide at the United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.

A growing movement

Over 50 years following its first coinage, the idea has moved from the shadows and stepped on to the global stage. As of now there have been over 25,000 signatories of Stop Ecocide’s petition to make ecocide an international crime. This popularity has culminated in the work we are seeing in The Hague.

The centre of the ecocide debate has shifted from the United Nations (UN) to the ICC. In 2016, the ICC first moved to make certain environmental acts criminal offences, by stating that the court would prioritise crimes which lead to ‘destruction of the environment’ and ‘exploitation of natural resources’. Since then, pressure has grown on the court to take further steps to prevent widespread ecological destruction.

Europe and the movement

Nowhere has political support for defining the crime of ecocide been more apparent than in Europe. Numerous high-profile European politicians have come out in overt support of criminalising the act. These include French President Emmanuel Macron, who last November first proposed making ecocide illegal in France. Maximum punishments would include fines of up to €4.5 million and prison sentences of up to 10 years. Further support for the development of an international definition has been officially received from Swedish politicians and the Belgian government.

Pollution remains a major issue across the continent, with the European Environment Agency calling air pollution ‘the biggest environmental health risk in Europe’, with levels of pollutants above both EU and World Health Organisation guidelines. It is hoped the introduction of more stringent measures will help Europe’s continued fight versus environmental pollutants.

The impetus for supporting ecocide legislation for politicians is clear, with environmental issues increasing in importance amongst the population. With no demographic is this truer than amongst the young, with an estimated 1.4 million young people taking part in 2019’s school strikes for climate action. Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise politicians are racing to be associated with climate action and build support amongst the young future electorate.

The importance of having the term in law

The major advantage seen by those pushing for the international criminalisation of ecocide is the creation of an opportunity to arrest and prosecute those found guilty and bring them under international scrutiny. Although currently individuals or companies found to violate domestic environmental laws or agreements can be sued or fined, campaigners ultimately argue this fails to act as a deterrent, especially for large corporations who they say simply accommodate for possible fines and infractions in their budgets.

By making ecocide an international criminal offence,  campaigners argue a ‘moral red line’ will be created, changing perspectives on environmental damage from a mere nuisance, to an international crime. No longer would CEOs be able to simply calculate expenses into their business model, or governments agree to environmentally questionable practices for economic gain, in the face of jail terms alongside international legal, and moral, scrutiny.

Who are the criminals?

Recent developments have shown who may be amongst the first to fall foul of such a law: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In January, the ICC received a request from Paris-based lawyer William Bourdan, on behalf of Amazonian indigenous groups and environmental campaigners, to have the president tried for ecocide in the Hague. Accusations largely surround the huge environmental damages that allegedly occurred under his presidency: only in the first nine months there were 160 reports on land invasion, exploitation of natural resources and property damages on indigenous land. If a Hague trial were to occur, a major milestone in climate action would be reached, with those committing environmental crimes trialled in an area once reserved largely for war criminals.

Calls have also arrived from countries at the most direct and severe risk of harm from environmental destruction and climate change. The small island nation of Vanuatu, located in the South Pacific, first called on the ICC in December 2019 to ‘criminalise acts that amount to ecocide’. The island, particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, has been increasingly calling for greater environmental action. In 2018, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ralph Regenvanu, announced plans to sue fossil fuel companies and their government supporters, suggesting possible future targets of ecocide legislation.

For the Europe-based legislators and politicians,  prosecution may also be seen far closer to home. French Minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Morretti highlighted the role ecocide laws would play in tackling pollution in Europe, with the laws meaning ‘you will pay up to ten times the profit you make just to throw your waste into the river’.

How far will the law go?

A key issue of the debate remains: where is the line drawn? Numerous industries vital for the modern economy, such as farming, fishing, logging and mining, are reliant on negative environmental practices, most notably deforestation.

A decision on the extent to which such practices would be legal under new definitions would be vital for bringing clarity, not only to those who work in such industries, many in rural areas where alternative work is scarce, but to the wider population reliant on their produce and services. A fine line must be walked between environmental protection and the effect on livelihoods.

It stands to be seen how far the establishment of ecocide as a crime will reach, with the draft formal legal definition of the crime expected to be published early this year. However, with the climate crisis becoming an ever-increasing issue for both the public and politicians, increasing the legal protections of the natural environment is key in safeguarding the world we all live in.