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‘Ecocide’: Mass environmental damage may become an international crime

What is ecocide? Will it become a legally recognized international crime?

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A firefighter prepares to battle the North Fire in Santa Clarita, California.

In this April 28, 2021, file photo, a firefighter prepares to battle the North Fire from a backyard on Via Patina, in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Associated Press

Tuesday marked a “historic” moment for climate justice advocates. An internationally collaborative panel of lawyers published a new legal definition for “ecocide,” the mass destruction of the environment, reports The Guardian.

  • The panel hopes the International Criminal Court will adopt this definition, making ecocide an internationally enforceable crime on par with war crimes, says Al Jazeera.
  • Under the new definition, business leaders and government leaders could be prosecuted for ecocidal crimes, reports NBC News.

What is ecocide?

A new legal definition of ecocide was unveiled Tuesday after months of work. The definition aims to be general while targeting large-scale acts of environmental harm, not small daily activities most people participate in that contribute to environmental harm over the long term, says The Guardian.

  • The draft legislation defines ecocide as “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,” per NBC News.

The proposed legislation does not include a list of examples of ecocide. Deforestation, nuclear accidents, oil spills, oil drilling and killing protected species may all potentially qualify as ecocidal crimes, says The Guardian.

  • Ecocide would include “reckless disregard” for the environment, leading to “serious adverse changes, disruption or harm to any element of the environment,” the new definition says per Al Jazeera.
  • Ecocidal damages would “extend beyond a limited geographic area, cross state boundaries, or (be) suffered by an entire ecosystem or species or a large number of human beings” and cause “irreversible” damages or damages not naturally fixed “within a reasonable period of time,” says Al Jazeera.

What happens if the International Criminal Court adopts this?

If adopted by the International Criminal Court, ecocide would be the “fifth crime” the court prosecutes. Government leaders and corporate leaders could be held responsible for major environmental disasters, says NBC News.

  • The International Criminal Court only prosecutes four crimes: “genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression,” says Al Jazeera.
  • Corporations that cause environmental harm currently only face financial charges.

Will ecocide become an international crime?

The process of ecocide becoming an international crime could take between four to five years, says Al Jazeera:

  • First, one of the 123 International Criminal Court member states must propose the legislation as an amendment to the court’s charter.
  • The annual assembly, held in December, will vote on whether to consider this enactment, per NBC News.
  • If the effort passes this vote, member states would debate the specifics of the amendment.
  • Finally, a two-thirds majority vote is needed to ratify the amendment.

Supporters of the initiative hope the new definition may spur changes in domestic courts and discourage prospective ecocidal behavior, even if the International Criminal Court does not adopt the effort, according to NBC News.