Ecocide (Greek oikos- home and Latin cadere – to kill) is the destruction of the environment by humans.[1] Ecocide threatens all human populations who are dependent on natural resources for maintaining ecosystems and ensuring their ability to support future generations.[2][3][4] The Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide describes it as "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".[5][6]

Commonly cited examples of ecocide include; deforestation during the Vietnam War, deforestation in Indonesia and the Amazon rainforest and oil pollution in the Niger Delta. The term was popularised by Olof Palme when he accused the United States of ecocide at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment.[7][8]

There is currently no international crime of ecocide that applies in peacetime, only in wartime, covered by the Rome Statute.[3][9] It was originally planned to be included in the Rome Statute and supported by many states, but was removed due to objections by the United Kingdom, France and the United States of America. Ecocide has been made a national law in several countries with many more discussing implementing a law, including the European Union.[10] Stop Ecocide International and others are working to enshrine ecocide into the Rome Statute, making it both international law and national law in member states national law.[9][11][3]

Several world leaders, environmentalists and scientists have publicly supported ecocide being made an international crime including Pope Francis, Antonio Guterres, Greta Thunberg, Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, Emmanuel Macron, Jane Goodall and Paul McCartney.[12][13] Several countries have also supported the proposal including Fiji, Niue, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and Vanuatu.[14]

Ecocide is a common theme in fiction with many films and books set in a post ecocide world, including Blade Runner, Mad Max, WALL-E, Interstellar, Threads and Soylent Green.

Aspects of ecocide

The Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide, convened by Stop Ecocide Foundation describes it as "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".[5][6]

Genocide

Ecocide can threaten a people's cultural and physical existence, and several studies have shown that ecocide has genocidal dimensions.[15] Destruction of the natural environment can result in cultural genocide by preventing people from following their traditional way of life.[15] This is especially true for Indigenous people.[16] Ecocide resulting from climate change and resource extraction may become a primary driver of genocide worldwide.[15] Some Indigenous scholars have argued that ecocide and genocide are inextricable.[17]

Mainstream understanding of genocide (as defined by the United Nations) restricts genocide to acts committed against the bodies of individual people. Some genocide researchers argue that this human rights framework does a disservice to colonised Indigenous people who experienced social death with the loss of relationship to their land but who were not always killed in the process of colonisation.[17]

Climate change and mass extinction

The ongoing mass extinction of species has been called ecocide.[18] US environmental theorist Patrick Hossay argues that modern industrial civilization is ecocidal.[19]

Climate change may result in ecocide. For example, ocean acidification and warming causes damage to coral reefs,[20][21] although ecocide of coral reefs has also been attributed to causes not related to climate change.[22]

Criminalization of ecocide under the Rome Statute has been proposed as a deterrent to corporations responsible for climate change,[21] although others argue that criminalizing ecocide will not address the root causes of the climate crisis.[23]

Intent

Ecocide may occur with or without intent. Environmental lawyer Polly Higgins distinguishes between ascertainable and non-ascertainable ecocide, with the former having a clear human cause while the latter does not. An example of non-ascertainable ecocide is destruction due to extreme weather events related to climate change.[17]

Arthur H. Westing discussed the element of intent in relation to ecocide, stating that "Intent may not only be impossible to establish without admission but, I believe, it is essentially irrelevant."[24][15]

Examples of ecocide

Deforestation in Europe.

While ecocide is recognised as a crime in a small number of countries, many examples of environmental destruction have been described as ecocides by academics, journalists, politicians and others.

Vietnam War

Main article: Vietnam War

U.S. helicopter spraying chemical defoliants in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam, 1969

One of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. military effort in Southeast Asia was the widespread use of chemical defoliants between 1961 and 1971. 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (like Agent Orange) were sprayed on 6 million acres of forests and crops by the U.S. Air Force.[25] They were used to defoliate large parts of the countryside to prevent the Viet Cong from being able to hide weaponry and encampments under the foliage, and to deprive them of food. Defoliation was also used to clear sensitive areas, including base perimeters and possible ambush sites along roads and canals. More than 20% of South Vietnam's forests and 3.2% of its cultivated land was sprayed at least once. 90% of herbicide use was directed at forest defoliation.: 263  The chemicals used continue to change the landscape, cause diseases and birth defects, and poison the food chain.[26][27][28] Official US military records have listed figures including the destruction of 20% of the jungles of South Vietnam and 20-36% (with other figures reporting 20-50%) of the mangrove forests.[29] The environmental destruction caused by this defoliation has been described by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, lawyers, historians and other academics as an ecocide.[30][31][32][33][34][35]

Russian invasion of Ukraine

Main article: Russian invasion of Ukraine

Before and after the Destruction of the Kakhovka Dam

Based on a preliminary assessment the war has inflicted USD 51 billion in environmental damage in both territories. According to a report by the Yale School of the Environment, some 687,000 tons of petrochemicals have burned as a result of shelling, while nearly 1,600 tons of pollutants have leaked into bodies of water. Hazardous chemicals have contaminated around 70 acres of soil, and likely made agricultural activities temporarily impossible.[36] Around 30% of Ukraine's land is now littered with explosives and more than 2.4 million hectares of forest have been damaged.[37]

According to Netherlands-based peace organization PAX, Russia's "deliberate targeting of industrial and energy infrastructure" has caused "severe" pollution, and the use of explosive weapons has left "millions of tonnes" of contaminated debris in cities and towns.[38] In early June 2023, the Kakhovka Dam, under Russian occupation, was damaged, causing flooding and triggering warnings of an ″ecological disaster.″[39]

The Ukrainian government, international observers and journalists have described the damage as ecocide.[40][41][42][43] The Ukrainian government is investigating more than 200 war crimes against the environment and 15 incidents of ecocide (a crime in Ukraine).[44][45][46] Zelenskyy and Ukraine's prosecutor general Andriy Kostin have met with prominent European figures (Margot Wallstrom, Heidi Hautala, Mary Robinson and Greta Thunberg) to discuss the environmental damage and how to prosecute it.[47][48]

Deforestation in Indonesia

Main article: Deforestation in Indonesia

Deforestation in Riau province, Sumatra, to make way for an oil palm plantation (2007)

Indonesia has one of the world's fastest deforestation rates.[49][50] In 2020, forests covered approximately 49.1% of the country's land area,[51] down from 87% in 1950.[52] Since the 1970s, log production, various plantations and agriculture have been responsible for much of the deforestation in Indonesia.[52] Most recently, it has been driven by the palm oil industry,[53] which has been criticised for its environmental impact and displacement of local communities.[50][54] The widespread deforestation (and other environmental destruction) in Indonesia is often described by academics as an ecocide.[55][56][57][58][59] The situation has made Indonesia the world's largest forest-based emitter of greenhouse gases.[60] It also threatens the survival of indigenous and endemic species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified 140 species of mammals as threatened and 15 as critically endangered, including the Bali myna,[61] Sumatran orangutan,[62] and Javan rhinoceros.[63]

Niger Delta oil pollution

Main article: Environmental issues in the Niger Delta

An oil spill in the Niger Delta

The effects of oil exploration in the fragile region of Niger Delta communities and environment have been vast. Local indigenous people have seen little improvement in their standard of living while suffering serious damage to their natural environment. Some of the hazardous damage of oil and gas exploration in the ecosystem are life threatening which includes Air pollution, Water pollution, Noise pollution etc. Affecting the aquatic lives, human health, also leads to deforestation. According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000.[64]

It has been estimated that a clean-up of the region, including full restoration of swamps, creeks, fishing grounds and mangroves, could take 25 years.[65] The Niger Delta is one of the most polluted regions in the world.[66][67] The heavy contamination of the air, ground and water with toxic pollutants is often used as an example of ecocide.[68][69][70][71][72]

Amazon rainforest deforestation

Main article: Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest

Deforestation in the Maranhão state, Brazil

Damage to the Amazon has widely been described by indigenous groups, human rights groups, politicians, academics and journalists as an ecocide and a genocide.[73][74][75][76] Indigenous chiefs and human rights organizations have submitted an Article 15 communication against Jair Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide for harm to Indigenous people and destruction of the Amazon.[77][78][79] Another has been submitted for ecocide by indigenous chiefs.[80]

International law

There is no international law against ecocide that applies in peacetime, but the Rome Statute makes it a crime to

Intentionally launch an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.[81]

The UN's International Law Commission (ILC) considered the inclusion of the crime of ecocide to be included within the Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind, the document which later became the Rome Statute. Article 26 (crime against the environment) was publicly supported by 19 countries in the Legal Committee but was removed due to opposition from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.[82][83][84]

In 1977 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile use of Environmental Modification Technique.[85] Article I of this Convention says, "Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party." There is no definition of the terms 'widespread, long-lasting or severe'.

In February 2024, the European Parliament adopted a law making a big, intentionally caused, environmental damage “comparable to ecocide” a crime that can be punished by up to 10 years in prison. The members of the Union should enter it to their national law, during 2 years.[86]

Efforts to expand international ecocide law

Efforts to criminalise ecocide have sought to include the crime among those prosecuted by the International Criminal Court established by the Rome Statute. These crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.[87]

In 2010, environmental lawyer Polly Higgins submitted a proposal to the United Nations International Law Commission that defined ecocide as:

The extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by any other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.[88][89][90][91]

This definition includes damage caused by individuals, corporations and/or the state. It also includes environmental destruction from 'other causes' (i.e. harm that is not necessarily caused by human activity). The purpose was to create a duty of care to mitigate or prevent naturally occurring disasters as well as creating criminal responsibility for human-caused ecocide.[92] The proposal has yet to be accepted by the United Nations.[88]

On 22 January 2013, a committee of eleven citizens from nine EU countries launched the "European Citizens Initiative (ECI) to End Ecocide in Europe".[93] The initiative aimed at criminalizing ecocide and investments in activities causing ecocide, as well as denying market access to the EU for products derived from ecocidal activities. Three MEPs, Keith Taylor, Eva Joly, and Jo Leinen, publicly gave the first signatures.[94] The initiative did not collect the 1 million signatures needed, but was discussed in the European Parliament.[95]

In December 2019 at the 18th session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Vanuatu and the Maldives called for ecocide to be added to the Statute.[6][96][97]

In June 2021, an international panel of lawyers submitted a definition of ecocide and proposed a draft amendment to the Rome Statute that would include ecocide among the international crimes prosecuted under the Statute.[98][6][99][100][101] The panel included members from the UK, Senegal, the US, France, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Samoa, and Norway,[102] and their proposed definition is:

For the purpose of this Statute, "ecocide" means 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.[103]

Notable supporters

Many notable people have publicly supported ecocide being made a crime at the International Criminal Court.

At the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme described the damage caused by defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War as ecocide and called for it to be made an international crime.[104][105][106][107]

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in 2017 that it is "highly desirable" to include ecocide as a crime at the International Criminal Court.[108][109][110]

Pope Francis in his address to the International Association of Penal Law in 2019 stated that "By 'ecocide' we should understand the loss, damage and destruction of ecosystems of a given territory, so that its enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or may be severely affected. This is a fifth category of crimes against peace, which should be recognised as such by the international community." He also stated that "sins against ecology" should be added to Catholic teachings.[111][112][113]

Environmentalist Jane Goodall supported ecocide being made an international crime, stating: "The concept of Ecocide is long overdue. It could lead to an important change in the way people perceive – and respond to – the current environmental crisis."[114][115][116]

In 2023, Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Anuna de Wever and Adélaïde Carlier demanded, in an open letter, that all European Union leaders and heads of state must "advocate to make ecocide an international crime at the International Criminal Court."[117][118]

At the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights supported ecocide being made a crime at national and international levels.[119]

Stop Ecocide International

Stop Ecocide International (SEI) is an organisation which advocates amending the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to include ecocide. It works with governments, politicians, diplomats and wider society. The organisation has branches or associate groups in almost 50 countries.[120][121] SEI's sister organisation, the Stop Ecocide Foundation convened the Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide.[122][123]

History

1970s

The concept of ecocide originated in the 1970s after the United States devastated the environment in Vietnam through use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.[7][8] The word was first recorded at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington DC, where American plant biologist and bioethicist Arthur Galston proposed a new international agreement to ban ecocide.[124][125]

In 1972 at the United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, Prime Minister of Sweden Olof Palme called the Vietnam War an ecocide.[126] Others, including Indira Gandhi from India and Tang Ke, the leader of the Chinese delegation, also denounced the war in human and environmental terms, calling for ecocide to be an international crime.[127][128] A Working Group on Crimes Against the Environment was formed at the conference, and a draft Ecocide Convention was submitted into the United Nations in 1973.[129] This convention called for a treaty that would define and condemn ecocide as an international war crime, recognising that "man has consciously and unconsciously inflicted irreparable damage to the environment in times of war and peace."[130]

The ILC 1978 Yearbook's 'Draft articles on State Responsibility and International Crime' included: "an international crime (which) may result, inter alia, from: (d) a serious breach of an international obligation of essential importance for the safeguarding and preservation of the human environment, such as those prohibiting massive pollution of the atmosphere or of the seas."[131] Supporters who spoke out in favor of a crime of ecocide included Romania, the Holy See,[132] Austria, Poland, Rwanda, Congo and Oman.[132]

1980s

The Whitaker Report, commissioned by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights on the prevention and punishment of genocide was prepared by then Special Rapporteur, Benjamin Whitaker.[133] The report contained a passage that

Some members of the Sub-Commission have, however, proposed that the definition of genocide should be broadened to include cultural genocide or "ethnocide", and also "ecocide": adverse alterations, often irreparable, to the environment – for example through nuclear explosions, chemical weapons, serious pollution and acid rain, or destruction of the rain forest – which threaten the existence of entire populations, whether deliberately or with criminal negligence.[134]

Discussion of international crimes continued in the International Law Commission in 1987, where it was proposed that "the list of international crimes include "ecocide", as a reflection of the need to safeguard and preserve the environment, as well as the first use of nuclear weapons, colonialism, apartheid, economic aggression and mercenarism".[135]

1990s

In 1996, Canadian/Australian lawyer Mark Gray published his proposal for an international crime of ecocide, based on established international environmental and human rights law. He demonstrated that states, and arguably individuals and organizations, causing or permitting harm to the natural environment on a massive scale breach a duty of care owed to humanity in general. He proposed that such breaches, where deliberate, reckless or negligent, be identified as ecocide where they entail serious, and extensive or lasting, ecological damage; international consequences; and waste.[8]

2010s

In 2011, the Hamilton Group drafted a mock Ecocide Act and then tested it via a mock trial in the UK Supreme Court.[136][137]

In 2012, a concept paper on the Law of Ecocide was sent out to governments.[138] In June 2012 the idea of making ecocide a crime was presented to legislators and judges from around the world at the World Congress on Justice Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability,[139][140][141] held in Mangaratiba before the Rio +20 Earth Summit. Making ecocide an international crime was voted as one of the top twenty solutions to achieving sustainable development at the World Youth Congress in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012.[142]

In October 2012 the international conference Environmental Crime: Current and Emerging Threats[143] was held in Rome and hosted by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in cooperation with United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Ministry of the Environment (Italy). The conference recognized that environmental crime is an important new form of transnational organized crime in need a greater response. One of the outcomes was that UNEP and UNICRI head up a study into the definition of environmental crime and give due consideration to making ecocide an international crime.[144]

In May 2017 the grassroots citizen's movement End Ecocide on Earth published a proposal covering jurisdiction, substantive criminal law, procedural due process, declaratory judgements, reparations, and individual or corporate penalty provisions within the existing Rome Statute framework.[145][146][non-primary source needed][clarification needed]

In November 2019 Pope Francis, addressing the International Association of Penal Law (AIDP), called on the international community to recognize ecocide as a "fifth category of crime against peace."[147]

In July 2019, a group of 24 scientists called for ecocide committed in conflict areas be punished as a war crime.[7]

2020s

In November 2020, a panel of international lawyers convened by Stop Ecocide International and chaired by British law professor Philippe Sands and Senegalese jurist Dior Fall Sow started drafting a proposed law criminalizing ecocide.[148][149]

In May 2021, the European parliament adopted 2 reports advancing the recognition of ecocide as a crime.[150]

In order to enforce implementation and increase citizens' trust in EU rules, and to prevent and remedy environmental damage more effectively, Parliament demands that the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD) and the Environmental Crime Directive (ECD) be improved.[151][clarification needed]

Also in May 2021 the 179 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) passed an almost-unanimous resolution inviting member parliaments recognise the crime of ecocide.[152]

The governments of some of the island states at risk from climate change (Fiji, Niue, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and Vanuatu) launched the "Port Vila Call for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific", calling for the phase out fossil fuels and the 'rapid and just transition' to renewable energy and strengthening environmental law including introducing the crime of ecocide.[153][154]

On 16 November 2023, European Union legislators reached an agreement on a new directive with jail sentences for the worst polluters and companies fined up to 5% of their global turnover. The agreed law has to be formally approved by Parliament in February 2024.[155]

Domestic law

Ten countries have codified ecocide as a crime within their borders during peacetime. Those countries followed the wording of Article 26 of the International law Commission (ILC) Draft which referred to intentionally causing "widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment" within the context of war – bearing in mind that Article 26 was removed from the final draft submitted to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1996.[156] None of the countries established procedures to measure 'intention'.

The countries with domestic ecocide laws are France (2021), Georgia (1999), Armenia (2003), Ukraine (2001), Belarus (1999), Ecuador (2008; 2014), Kazakhstan (1997), Kyrgyzstan (1997), Moldova (2002), Russia (1996), Tajikistan (1998), Uzbekistan (1994), Vietnam (1990).[157]

France

In 2021, The French National Assembly approved the creation of an "ecocide" offence as part of a battery of measures aimed at protecting the environment and tackling climate change.[158] Offenders will be liable to up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 4.5 million euros ($5.4 million).[159]

In popular culture

See List of nuclear holocaust fiction for fiction which depicts ecocide by nuclear holocaust.

Movies

Many movies depict ecocide and its impacts including:[160][161]

TV series

Documentaries

Several documentaries explore the subject including

See also

References

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Further reading