Ecocide: a crime against humanity
1 August 2011 - Impact Hub

Guest blog by Robert Holton, campaigns Director for the Eradicating Ecocide campaign. He has been working alongside Polly Higgins, international environmental rights lawyer, to have ecocide recognised as the 5th Crime Against Peace in the UN.
The law is a powerful tool for changing behaviour. By prohibiting certain forms of behaviour and encouraging others, laws can make us reconceptualise our interactions with the world – whether with fellow human beings or the environment. It is with these guiding principles that international environmental rights lawyer Polly Higgins proposes to use the law to put an end to the large-scale destruction of the environment, or ‘ecocide’.
Polly defines Ecocide as the “extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.”
She is campaigning to have ecocide recognised as the fifth Crime Against Peace in the UN, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. Ecocide is such a grave offence that international criminal law is needed to stop it.
By criminalising ecocide, she hopes to prevent CEOs, heads of banks and heads of state from supporting or financing activities that could result in ecocide. Where punitive fines do not work, maybe the threat of a prison sentence will. By making ecocide a crime, she hopes to ensure that anyone high up in the command chain who initiates actions that lead to ecocide will be held personally accountable.
This is not a finger-pointing campaign, or an exercise in vilifying ‘bad corporates’. Many people want a green economy and a just future, but laws as they stand today prevent that. In a free market economy, legislation seems to encourage putting profit above all else. We want our leaders to help businesses and banks create strategies for a new world – a world where nature is treated with respect, and where we recognise our ability to create change in the world and accept our responsibility to preserve the environment.
Already, Bolivia has enshrined the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth and Turkey has called for environmental rights to form a core part of its constitution. Oil has been kept underground beneath the flourishing Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, a country which has its own Bill of Nature’s Rights, and ex-Obama adviser Dan Jones has championed cause of the Pachamama Alliance, which seeks to spread the environmental rights message globally. This is just the beginning.
Just as the breach of the human right to life is governed by criminal law (on an individual level, it is protected by the crime of murder, and on a mass scale by the crime of genocide), the abuse of Earth rights must also be criminalised.
The Eradicating Ecocide campaign draws upon the ‘hardware’ already in place – the Rome Statute (which sets out the four existing Crimes Against Peace), the International Criminal Court and the United Nations. What it needs now is the ‘software’ – Ecocide and Earth Rights – to protect the natural environment and make us reconsider our relationship with the Earth.
Surrounded by technology and increasing urbanisation, we sometimes forget the vital role nature plays in our existence: when we damage the Earth, we undermine the very systems we depend on for our survival.
But by making the bold statement that ecocide should be illegal, we acknowledge the value of the natural world we are part of. We demand that certain ecologically unsound practices stop now and we open the door to a new way of thinking.
Imagine a world in which the Earth is not treated not as a commodity to be traded and sold, but as a living being of infinite value. Imagine a world governed not by property law, but by trusteeship law, which has us act as the guardians of the Earth instead of wantonly destroying it. Imagine a world without ecocide.
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