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FAQ - Ecocide & The law

Retrouvez ici les questions les plus fréquemment posées à Stop Ecocide International

What is ECOCIDE?

Broadly defined, ecocide means mass damage or destruction to ecosystems, committed with knowledge of the risks..In other words, serious harm to the natural living world. We believe it should be listed as an international crime in the Rome Statute, alongside Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. We provide potential examples of what such a crime could address here.

The definition submitted to the UN Law Commission by our co-founder Polly Higgins in 2010 is as follows: Ecocide is extensive loss, damage or destruction of ecosystems of a given territory(ies)… such that the peaceful enjoyment of the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.
This is also the definition referred to by Pope Francis in his call for ecocide to become a crime (November 2019).


Does ECOCIDE law protect only humans?
A key aim of a crime of ecocide is to protect not only humans but nature itself, so that destruction of ecosystems can be outlawed even without direct human victims. This will be a key consideration in the drafting of a workable legal definition by the expert panel convened by our foundation.


Don’t we already have environmental laws?
Environmental regulation is mostly in the civil arena, and where there are defined environmental crimes they are usually quite specific (eg a certain degree of pollution in a certain context). In most of the world there is no legal framework in place to deal with mass damage and destruction per se, so corporate activity follows a path of least resistance, operating most damagingly where there is the least protection, and simply budgeting for civil lawsuits. A crime of ecocide creates a new moral baseline whereby anything causing mass damage or destruction of natural ecosystems will become unacceptable.

Isn’t ecocide covered under other atrocity crimes?
There is some provision for environmental damage covered under war crimes and there may be some (as yet untested) potential to include some aspects of ecocide under crimes against humanity, but most ecosystem destruction happens in peace-time and does not always affect humans directly. We therefore believe that a standalone crime is required.


Will Ecocide becoming a crime actually change anything?
Profoundly. Because we use criminal law to help define what is morally acceptable, by outlawing mass damage and destruction to the natural world, we acknowledge the intrinsic value of the Earth and our part in the wider web of life. It is a key turning point enabling our legal framework to begin to actually reflect reality. Damage to ecosystems may still take place, but it will no longer be an accepted norm. As a simple parallel, theft still occurs but we wouldn’t think of de-criminalising it. By criminalising a moral wrong, we provide tools for lawyers to act and speak on behalf of those harmed, and society at large no longer deems it acceptable for the crime to take place.


What is the legal process for making ECOCIDE an international atrocity crime?
A Head of State (or more than one) must propose an ecocide amendment to the Rome Statute, governing document of the International Criminal Court. This amendment must be submitted at least 3 months before a meeting of the States Parties to the Rome Statute (usually the Assembly, held every December in The Hague, Netherlands and sometimes at the UN in New York). A simple majority at that meeting enables the amendment to enter into consideration.
A Crime Review Conference is likely to then be convened. With the agreement of 2/3 of member states (currently 82 out of 123) the amendment is adopted into the Statute and ratification and enforcement can proceed. (Any country ratifying must enforce the law in its own domestic legislation after one year.)


Have there been previous amendments to the Rome Statute?
Yes, the Crime of Aggression has been added. The amendment enables the ICC to hold leaders individually responsible for waging aggressive war.


I heard that Ecocide was intended to be in the original draft of the Rome Statute and didn’t make it? How do we know it will make it this time?
Amending a law is very different to drafting a law. At initial drafting stage, those with the most economic and political power can often have the loudest voices and steer the outcome strongly. For an amendment, any member state of the ICC, however small, has equal ability to take it forward following a set procedure. Alliances will still need to be built of course, but there is much more transparency, especially with the civil support of Earth Protectors worldwide.


What is the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s connection if any with the UN?
The ICC is an independent institution but there are some links with the UN. For example, the UN security council can refer cases to the ICC, and when an amendment to the Rome Statute is proposed, it must in the first instance be notified to the UN Secretary-General who then notifies the ICC member states.


Can ecocide law come into effect immediately?
No. A transition period is necessary - in part because the adoption procedure takes time, and importantly, because corporations and states need time to change practices in order to reduce risk of collapse and humanitarian suffering. However, such transitions can be effected in a limited time when required - and our current global ecological crisis is rapidly creating a time limit for us.
NB The proposal of an ecocide amendment is the key moment which makes it visible on the horizon, enabling change to begin. But before a single state even ratifies this amendment to international law, it will begin to change the entire global conversation.


Is a law of ECOCIDE compatible with economic growth?
The “growth at all costs” approach to economics is in large part what has created the level of ecocide we are currently witnessing. But perpetual growth is not the only way to approach the economy. We advocate for a transition period to allow economic systems to change focus and direction. Ecology must inform economy and not vice versa. If the ecosystems that underpin our economic activity collapse we will face far worse than a recession!


How would ecocide law affect nations which ‘rely’ on potentially ecocidal industries for their economic and social stability?
A managed period of transition will be absolutely necessary to allow such countries to re-direct their economic activity in order to prevent collapse or humanitarian disaster. Part of the process of establishing the drafting and consequent functioning of the new law will be involving international bodies that can advise and assist. It is our intention along with our legal allies to provide suggested models for how this could work to ensure justice and a legal duty of care.


Aren’t we all contributing to ECOCIDE?
We may be, but often not by choice. Ecocide law is not intended to punish end users and ordinary citizens but decision makers at the top level. See next question:


Who will be prosecutable?
Ecocide law is intended for the prosecution of persons of superior responsibility - the directing minds in a given situation where the crime of ecocide has been committed. These persons may be ministers of state or CEOs/senior officers of corporations or other bodies responsible for ecocide.


Who will decide what is and isn’t ECOCIDE?
The criminal courts, according to whether the evidence fits the definition adopted  – either the domestic courts of countries which ratify the law or the International Criminal Court (ICC) if a state cannot or will not prosecute. The exact wording of that is not yet set - it will be debated by member states once a proposal is under discussion at the ICC, but in the meantime we treat the definition outlined in the top question as a working definition. As a guideline, damage must be widespread, severe or long-term/systematic.


How will the law be enforced?
Once a country ratifies ecocide as a crime at the international level, they must incorporate it into domestic legislation. If you have an ecocide happening in your country, your government should be the one to prosecute. The International Criminal Court comes into play only if nation states cannot or will not prosecute.


I have heard that the ICC is ineffective…How can we be sure that it is our best option to prevent harm to the Earth?
There are several reasons for focusing on the ICC:

1. Procedure: Amending a law is more straightforward than creating a new one (eg in individual jurisdictions)
2. Coherence: If the law is adopted there, by definition it enters the domestic legislation of ratifying countries in the same form, creating coherence across jurisdictions.
3. Solidarity: If the law is adopted there, by definition many countries are supporting it, meaning none of them need to feel they are “sticking their neck out” politically.
4. Transboundary jurisdiction: the biggest polluters are all multinationals.

Finally, we see a crime of ecocide as a potential route to greater relevance on the world stage for the ICC!


Can the law be applied retrospectively?
No. The true goal of introducing ecocide crime is preventative - by the time it is ratified across the world, we trust that the harmful practices it outlaws will have ceased or transformed to operate in harmony with natural ecosystems.


How long will it take to make ECOCIDE a crime?
The process can take anything from 2 to 7 years in total, and the earliest that an amendment could be proposed is 2020. However we are not starting from scratch - we have been working with ecocide-vulnerable states for some years now. In December 2019, two sovereign states (Vanuatu and the Maldives) called for serious consideration of an ecocide amendment to the Rome Statute and now there are 7 ICC member states discussing it with interested parliamentarians in 9 further states. So while particular time frames cannot be guaranteed, interest is growing rapidly. This is fuelled by the failure of 25 years of climate negotiations to put any meaningful legislative and political change in place, and by the grassroots mobilisations across the world recognising the need for a concrete enforceable solution.


Which states are you working with?
Because our work is largely of a diplomatic nature, we cannot share this kind of information until it has first been publicly announced by the relevant governments.

Vanuatu, a leading voice among Pacific ocean states, was the first to announce its collaboration with us, and in December 2019 was the first state to publicly call for consideration of a crime of ecocide (Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, 2nd-7th December 2019).

Please see this page for leading states in the global conversation around ecocide crime.


Which countries would be covered by the law?
Any ICC member states which ratify it. Once ⅔ have agreed to add the crime of ecocide to the Rome Statute, the amendment becomes enforceable for those states which ratify. The amendment becomes enforceable for those states which ratify one year after they submit their ratification.


What if a country (eg US, China) isn’t a member of the ICC?
There is a powerful marginalising effect even in countries which are not members or haven’t ratified.
Importantly, transnational corporations would not be able to operate ecocidal practices in any jurisdiction signed up to the law.
Countries that have ratified the law can enforce it, and any countries subscribing to the principles of universal jurisdiction may also prosecute non-nationals if a perpetrator sets foot in their territory.


I am particularly worried about (eg) meat consumption / 1080 toxins / 5G radiation / other specific issues… does ecocide crime cover these?
Once the law is in place, if there is sufficient evidence to fit the legal definition of ecocide, then yes. We believe that legislating to protect nature - and our place in it - is ultimately far more practical than legislating for specific isolated issues. Indeed our failure to effectively do this has brought us to the current crisis point. Quite apart from the range of current destructive practices the law will address, we do not know what ecocidal practices may be in development now or be dreamed up in the future. Outlawing mass damage and destruction by criminalizing ecocide therefore acts as a legal safeguard for humanity and the wider Earth community.