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‘Historic’: push to make ‘ecocide’ a crime takes major step forward

A draft law that would put environmental destruction on a par with war crimes has been drawn up by a team of international lawyers. The challenge is to get nations to adopt it

‘Ecocide’ now has a legal definition, paving the way for it to become a fifth international crime, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. 

The draft law, drawn up by legal experts from around the world, was unveiled on Tuesday. It defines ecocide as: “Unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”. 

The definition will be made available to the 123 nations that belong to the International Criminal Court (ICC). If adopted by member states, the law could be used to prosecute offenders through the international courts at The Hague. 

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“Defining the crime is a first step on a path of discussion, debate, and, one day, ratification,” said Alex Whiting, former ICC prosecutions coordinator, and one of the legal experts who helped nail down the definition.

“The hope is that the process will energise states to think about how to use international criminal law to target the most grave environmental crimes, while at the same time deploying domestic criminal and regulatory law to address a broad range of environmental harms that threaten our planet.”

The draft law comes as climate campaigners look to the courts to hold polluters to account, amid concern that not enough is being done to reduce emissions by governments or corporations. 


The law would be used to prosecute offenders for crimes against the environment. Image: Veeterzy

This week, an octogenarian nun and eight teenagers launched legal proceedings against the Australian government, arguing that it has a duty of care to protect future generations from the worsening climate crisis.

And earlier this month, Friends of the Earth Netherlands won a landmark case against Shell in The Hague. A court there ordered the oil giant to slash emissions by 40 per cent by 2040, a verdict that could have implications for other polluters. Shell said that it expects to appeal against the decision.

Defining the crime is a first step on a path of discussion, debate, and, one day, ratification

The team of legal experts who drafted the ecocide law were commissioned by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, which said the publication of the definition was “an historic moment”. 

Jojo Mehta, the foundation’s chair, added: “The definition is well pitched between what needs to be done concretely to protect ecosystems and what will be acceptable to states. It’s concise, it’s based on strong legal precedents and it will mesh well with existing laws.”

Marie Toussaint, a French MEP who is an advocate of the draft law, said: “This recognition is essential if we want to protect all life on our planet, as well as peace and human rights.”

Main image: A monkey in Bali, Indonesia. Credit: Juan Rumimpunu

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