Lawyers define “ecocide”

It would be the fifth crime subject to prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC), alongside the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. A committee of independent experts, mandated by the Stop Ecocide foundation, concluded six months of deliberations by publishing, Tuesday, June 22, a legal definition of “ecocide”.

The panel recommends three amendments to the Rome Statute of the ICC, adopted in 1998 and entered into force on 1er July 2002, to add the crime of ecocide, defined as “Illegal or unjustified acts committed in the knowledge that there is a substantial probability of serious and widespread or long-term damage caused by these acts to the environment “.

Co-chaired by British lawyer Philippe Sands and former Senegalese prosecutor Dior Fall Sow, the panel of twelve jurists, specialists in international criminal law and environmental law, including the Frenchwoman Valérie Cabanes, opted for a concise definition, based on solid legal precedents that can be integrated into existing laws.

The committee preferred to stick to a definition that encompasses the most flagrant acts“, explains Philippe Sands, rather than an explicit mention of the climate change desired by some. Cross-border nuclear accidents, large oil spills and Amazon deforestation are potential examples of ecocide, as is, on a smaller geographic scale, the illegal killing of an important protected species.

The goal is to garner the necessary support from a sufficient number of states to amend the ICC statute. Four conditions must indeed be met to make ecocide an international crime. One of the 123 states that have ratified the Rome Statute must propose an amendment to this effect.

Then, a majority must be obtained at the ICC’s annual meeting to accept that this amendment be taken into consideration. Finally, a two-thirds majority of ICC states parties must vote in favor of the amendment, with each country then having to ratify the amended statute.

The Stop Écocide foundation relies on the support of a number of States, in particular the island States of the Pacific and Indian Ocean, that of civil society as well as parliamentarians from ICC Member States to initiate this process. .

In the meantime, the mere act of proposing to add “ecocide” to the crimes prosecuted by the ICC could already affect corporate behavior. Under pressure, in particular, from financiers and insurers anxious to avoid backing investments that would make a company’s CEO look like a war criminal.

Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme first raised the concept of ecocide as an international crime at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm.

Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins, who died in 2019, subsequently campaigned for the recognition of ecocide as a crime against humanity. Former judge at the International Court of Justice, James Crawford, who died in 2021, has also helped make environmental protection a central element of international law.


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