What is Ecocide


Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of 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 or will be severely diminished.

proposed amendment to the Rome Statute, by Polly Higgins, April 2010

Currently there is no overriding mandatory duty of care (sometimes called a fiduciary duty) to prevent significant harm or to act pre-emptively to give assistance to those who are facing Ecocide. Governments, business and finance are not legally bound to be accountable for some of the biggest Ecocides, despite the risk to both humans and nature. By creating a crime of Ecocide, the enforcement of a global primary duty (to stop activities that cause significant harm) ensures that all subsequent decisions are made whereby people and planet are put first. By criminalising Ecocide at an international level, a global duty of care is created.

The Problem: Ecocide

Ecocide, the extensive destruction of ecosystems, is occurring today. For example:

  • Large-scale land use change that causes the direct destruction of habitats – as is the case with deforestation in most tropical rainforests;
  • Significant pollution whether deliberate or incidental – such as oil dumping and spills;
  • Open cast mining where entire landscapes are removed – as is the case with oil sands and some coal and gold mining;

There is wide scientific agreement that the scale of these changes is not sustainable and that continued interference with the Earth system will have significant consequences. Humanity has stepped out of what has been called a ‘safe operating space’ and has exceeded at least three defined planetary boundaries.

The United Nation’s Global Environmental Outlook 5 Report 2012 (GEO-5) summarises the anthropogenic impacts on the Earth System, reiterating that they are unprecedented in human history. We know that we cannot continue to impact ecosystems with impunity forever and for there to be no consequences. The only question that is worth asking is what we will do about it.

If you are facing Ecocide our Strategic Partners, the International Senior Lawyers Project UK may be able to provide you with free advice. Contact the ISLP UK.

The solution: The Law of Ecocide

The Law of Ecocide has ‘legal teeth.’ Existing international agreements or voluntary action has proven to be insufficient. The power of the Law of Ecocide is that it addresses two core areas – human and naturally occurring Ecocide:

Human ecocide

A Law of Ecocide prevents human caused significant harm from occurring at the outset by creating a legal (ie mandatory) duty of care that is enforceable by the State. Where the State fails to take action, the International Criminal Court can step in.

Naturally occurring ecocide

A Law of Ecocide creates a legal duty of care for territories at risk of naturally occurring Ecocide (such as rising sea-levels, tsunamis, floods etc). Any State at risk shall be able to meet with Member States to explore a route-map to safety in advance of disaster striking. A law of Ecocide imposes a mandatory duty on all Member States to give assistance.

In 2010 international barrister and award winning author Polly Higgins proposed to the UN that Ecocide be implemented as the fifth Crime Against Peace.

The law of Ecocide is part of an emerging body of law called Earth Law; law which puts people and planet first.

History of the Law of Ecocide

The concept of Ecocide has been around since the 1970s. Making Ecocide a Crime Against Peace was examined within the UN for decades throughout the 1970s – 1990s. It was shelved last minute in 1996 without being put to the vote and despite a number of countries objecting to its exclusion. Ecocide really is the missing 5th Crime Against Peace. Learn more.

However, there are ten countries who believe that Ecocide is a crime and implemented laws in their own countries to prevent it.

Ecocide in wartime

Ecocide is already an international crime during wartime. According to 8.2.b (iv) of the Rome Statute it is a crime to “intentionally launch an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause...widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment...”

During peacetime no such crime exists. We are trying to close that legal loophole.

Implementing the Law of Ecocide

The Rome Statute already sets out four Crimes Against Peace and the International Criminal Court to enforce them. Legal definitions of what Ecocide is exist and a mock trial has demonstrated that that this is a law which can work.

To create an international law of Ecocide it only takes one state party to call for an amendment to the Rome Statute and then 80 States to agree. State parties are countries who have signed and ratified the Rome Statute, there are currently 121 State Parties.

Once an amendment to the Rome Statute has been agreed to include Ecocide, there will be a transition period of 5 years. This will allow for subsidies to be redirected from dangerous industrial activity which is causing Ecocide, to clean and green business. This will ensure the economy doesn’t collapse and turns businesses which are currently the problem, into the solution and leaders for change.

There are countless examples of Ecocide happening around the world from the Athabasca Tar Sands to extensive logging of the Amazon. Click to learn more.