Will Environmental Destruction be the 5th International Crime Against Peace?

A growing number of world leaders advocate making ecocide a crime before the International Criminal Court, to serve as a “moral line” for the planet. A small but growing number of world leaders including Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron have begun citing an offense they say poses a similar threat to humanity and remains beyond the reach of international criminal law: ecocide, or widespread destruction of the environment. The Pope has endorsed a campaign by environmental activists and legal scholars to make ecocide the fifth crime before the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a legal deterrent to the kinds of far-reaching environmental damage that are driving mass extinction, ecological collapse and climate change. The monumental step, which faces a long road of global debate, would mean political leaders and corporate executives could face charges and imprisonment for “ecocidal” acts.

The effort is a long shot and is at least years from fruition. Advocates will have to navigate political tensions over whether national governments or the international community have ultimate control over natural resources. And they’ll likely face opposition from countries with high carbon emissions and deep ties to industrial development.

The concept of ecocide was born out of tragedy. Over a period of 10 years, the United States government sprayed 19 million gallons of powerful herbicides, including Agent Orange, across the countryside in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to expose enemy sanctuaries during the Vietnam War. More than 20 years later the global community came together to form the International Criminal Court, which was formally established in 2002 under a treaty called the Rome Statute to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes when its member countries, which currently number 123, fail to do so themselves. Earlier drafts of the Rome Statute included the crime of environmental destruction, but it was removed after opposition, based on various concerns, including that it wasn’t precisely defined.

An ecocide crime would require International Criminal Court members to enact their own national ecocide laws, and failure to enforce those laws would enable the international court to step in. While political leaders and warlords have been the usual targets of the court, an ecocide crime could place business executives on notice, too. China, the United States, India and Russia — four of the world’s top polluters — are not members of the International Criminal Court, but if a corporation based in one of those countries were to operate within a member state, as many of them do, their executives could fall under the court’s jurisdiction. “That could make a difference in corporate boardroom conversations,” Kate Mackintosh, executive director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the University of California Los Angeles, said. Even the threat of being labeled an international criminal, she said, might deter destructive corporate behavior. “I mean, for PR, it doesn’t look good, does it?”. While the campaign for an ecocide law could take many years advocates say the effort could bear fruit much sooner: The ecocide campaign has thrust the concept into public discussion. Imagine what it would do to McDonalds’ brand image if their CEO was being prosecuted as an international criminal because of deforestation in Brasil?

Based on an article by Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News, Katie Surma, Inside Climate News and Yuliya Talmazan,  published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is part of “The Fifth Crime,” a series on ecocide.

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