The term ' ecocide' which is considered relatively new by most, has actually been a part of major environmental discourse over the last fifty years. The word is a combination of the Greek word 'oikos', meaning 'house' and the Latin word caedere, meaning “to kill.” Ecocide aptly translates to “killing our home.” In recent years, the call for ecocide to be criminalised has once again grown louder with figures from Greta Thunberg to President Macron to Pope Francis echoing this sentiment.
The phrase was first explicitly mentioned in 1970 by American biologist Arthur Galston during his speech at the Conference on War and National Responsibility. Galston was one of the developers of the defoliant Agent Orange, used controversially in the Vietnam War to destroy the thick foliage where the Vietnamese rebels based their camps, was horrified by the scale of the environmental damages and the allegedly unexpected side effect it had- poisoning villages and causing horrific birth defects that still last to this day. To say the experience left a strong impression on Galston would be an understatement. He became an antiwar activist and labelled the massive scale of environmental destruction as ' ecocide' The word derives from the Greek oikos, meaning “house or home,” and the Latin caedere, meaning “to demolish or kill.” Ecocide thus literally translates to “killing our home.”
The idea that ' ecocide' should be criminalised however, only arose two years later in 1972, when at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment , Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme referred to the Vietnam War as ecocide in his speech and urged the international audience present to take the problem more seriously. The conference was a milestone in environmental law, it led to the creation of the first international legal document that explicitly recognised the right to a healthy environment, the Stockholm Declaration. Following this momentous event, crowds took to the streets at the People's forum, demanding that ecocide be declared a crime and this sentiment has only grown stronger over the past 5 decades.
Just last year at the international criminal court in the Hague, Vanuatu called for the European Union to make environmental destruction an offence under International Criminal law. Small Island states like Vanuatu and the Maldives while contributing the least to environmental degradation, are often the most at risk by other larger countries contributions to the issue. The crime of ecocide would encompass acts such as oil spills, deep-sea mining, industrial livestock farming and tar sand extraction.The logic behind this request was that since these states have been unable to effectively persuade larger countries to adopt more environmentally friendly policy, the only way to solve this issue would be to criminalise it. The ambassador of Vanuatu called for a amendment to the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, that would criminalise acts amounting to ecocide.
Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently able to deal with environmental crimes, there is a key limiting factor- prosecution is only a possibility within the context of the four crimes the ICC handles – crimes against humanity, genocide, crimes of aggression and war crimes. Essentially, there are no restrictions to damages that a country may inflict on the environment in times of peace and while the great majority of states have locally specific regulations in place to mitigate such damages from occurring, supporters of the ecocide movement argue that mass environmental destruction, commonly citing the example of the Amazon fires, will not stop until International Law recognises ecocide as a crime.
The Amazon wildfires are a calamity of monumental proportions for the climate, biodiversity loss and health and are a prime example of why it is imperative for ecocide to be made a criminal offence, and quickly. Since Brazilian President Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 he has, layer by layer, stripped the rainforest of its numerous protections and has persistently encouraged outsiders from the mining, logging and farming industries to take advantage of the new economic opportunities with catastrophic consequences for the biodiversity and indigenous tribes that call the Amazon home. Local rules and regulation in this sense are simply not enough. The Amazonian fires have had a widen reaching impact on people's psyche, the realisation that the uncontrolled destruction is against them too - the Amazon is one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks and most important refuge of not just plant and animal life but human one too and demands for legal action to be taken has risen sharply.
International lawyers (French, American and Togan) already have plans in the works for to make ecocide a legally enforceable crime, thereby finally criminalising the wanton destruction of the world’s ecosystems. The movement is largely supported by the countries within the European Union and the and island nations that are at risk of disappearing entirely if nothing is done to address the rising sea levels. The international criminal court itself, has previously promised to prioritise prosecution of criminal activities resulting in “destruction of the environment”, “exploitation of natural resources” and the “illegal dispossession” of land.
However, it is unclear if these steps alone are enough. It is highly likely that International law will not prove to be the silver bullet that eradicates environmental destruction as environmentalists hope. Corporations, the main contributors to the problem, cannot be prosecuted under international criminal law, only individuals such as Bolsonaro himself and therefore criminalisation alone may not be sufficient. An additional challenge faced by the team of lawyers would be to define properly what constitutes ecocide, the destruction would have to be "mass, systematic and widespread". Furthermore, the International Criminal Court , does not possess any international means of enforcing its policies and is purely dependent on the willingness to cooperate by the various countries as well as its reputation. Ultimately this is not likely to be a major hindrance as while the Rome Statute also prohibits genocide, this has led to genocide now being the exception, rather than the norm and the same is likely to happen with ecocide should it be made the fifth crime under the statute.
For ecocide to officially become a crime under the ICC, once an official proposal has been submitted to The Hague, it would have to be supported by a two-thirds majority vote- 82 countries. And since no one country has veto power, regardless of size or wealth, this process is expected to be rather complicated and is expected to take anywhere between 3 to 7 years. However, it is well worth the effort. Making ecocide a punishable international crime could well be the first step to greening economies and communities. Recognising it as a criminal offence signals to responsible corporations and countries that their actions have very real repercussions. Harmful extractive practices such as that of oil and minerals below the seabed would now exponentially increase the risks for transnational corporations as well as their shareholders, causing more to turn to the safer option of renewables and sustainable agriculture when investing.
When considering our own views on this debate of whether or not the destruction of our environment should be a crime, it is important to remember that this crime is not a victimless one. Even if we were to callously disregard the irrecoverable impact of our actions on plant and animal life, we would still be forced to consider the impact on the humans in these environments who too are at risk of losing their homes and sources of livelihood and sustenance. The criminalisation of ecocide is ultimately a way to finally draw the moral red line on the unmitigated destruction of earth's priceless biosphere and those who call it home.