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  • Writer's pictureKatie Babson

Ecocide: The Fifth International Crime

Ecocide refers to recklessly damaging the environment and causing irreversible harm to ecosystems, which in turn fosters conditions for climate change, and is the newest proposed international crime. This means that political leaders and corporations committing it would be prosecuted under international law. Such criminalization would serve as a moral and legal baseline whereby contributors to climate change and thus the destruction of natural ecosystems will be condemned by the international community.

Deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest in Para, Brazil. Photo by Paralaxis via iStock.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) throughout history has participated in a global fight to end impunity, and through international criminal justice, seeks to hold those responsible for heinous crimes accountable and prevent international crimes from ever being committed. International crimes refer to serious crimes of concern to the global community and can result in punishments, including death and long-term imprisonment. These crimes consist of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. The purpose of international crimes is to serve as an international framework of universally condemned heinous atrocities to hold those committing these crimes accountable and allows other nations to become involved if these agreements have been violated.

Recently, a new international crime has been perceived to be a similar threat to humanity and gaining momentum. This crime has been labeled "ecocide", with its etymology rooted in the Greek word oikos (home) and the Latin word cadere (to kill), literally meaning "killing our home." As of June 2021, the legal definition of ecocide refers to “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.” This essentially means that political leaders and corporate executives would be prosecuted under international law for recklessly damaging the environment and causing irreversible harm to ecosystems. Ecocide is a root cause of the climate emergency the international community faces and a main contributor to climate change. This is such an important issue because ecocide and its devastating contributions to climate change have been perpetuated for decades by Big Oil and adjacent corporations, as well as political leaders who have refused to take real action. Major examples of ecocide include industrial fishing, oil spills, plastic pollution, and deep-sea mining – all of which contribute to climate change and exacerbate the consequences of global warming.

This movement gained international attention from vehement advocates like Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron, both of whom have advocated for the prosecution of massive corporations committing ecocide. Pope Francis has even gone so far as to suggest enumerating ecocide as a sin in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of the doctrines of Catholicism. Major figures championing for environmental destruction to be classified as a universal crime is a significant step toward making real change. It demonstrates a powerful cir de coeur to hold politicians and corporations accountable for their contributions to climate change and its grave implications for vulnerable populations.

The major question now is how do we make ecocide a crime? Ecocide law proponents maintain that this crime should fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC. The first step towards criminalizing ecocide is for any of the 123 member states, which have ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC, to propose a draft for ecocide law as an amendment to the ICC by the end of 2022. If a two-thirds majority at the assembly votes in favor, the adoption of ecocide will be reviewed and can then be ratified, ultimately becoming a criminal offense in countries where it is approbated. This is significant because it means that under the principles of universal jurisdiction, any nation that ratified ecocide as an international crime may, on its own territory, arrest any non-national for ecocide committed elsewhere.

Introducing ecocide as an international crime provides an unprecedented opportunity to create global legislation that could deter reckless leaders from willfully drafting damaging short-term policies. In addition, this will force major corporations to make changes in their problematic ecocide practices perpetuating climate change. Criminalization will slow down the global consumption of fossil fuels and encourage a transition to green energy through legal accountability. Finally, making ecocide a punitive punishment offers opportunities for new sustainable endeavors to take measures against climate change and mitigate its consequences. Overall, ecocide serves as a moral baseline whereby contributors to the destruction of natural ecosystems, which in turn fosters conditions for worsening climate change conditions, becomes completely unacceptable and will be condemned by the international community.

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