Many Pushing for ‘Ecocide’ to Become an International Crime

A growing number of world leaders including Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron have begun citing an offense they believe poses a threat to humanity similar to genocide, but is beyond the reach of international criminal law: ecocide. 


Ecocide can be defined as any widespread destruction of the environment. The term first appeared in 1972, when Olof Palme, the premier of Sweden, used it at a United Nations environmental conference in Stockholm to describe the environmental damage caused by the Vietnam war.


Since then, environmental advocates have supported the idea of creating an international ecocide law that would be adjudicated in the ICC and would penalize the individuals responsible for environmental destruction.


In 2017, Polly Higgins, a British barrister, and Jojo Mehta, an environmental activist, launched the Stop Ecocide campaign. The campaign quickly gained unexpected momentum when Greta Thunberg donated €100,000 to the cause and several world leaders publicly backed the idea. Advocates of an ecocide law believe It would change the way the environment is valued.


“There is something powerfully urgent about the idea that nature has rights,” says Mitch Anderson, founder and executive director of Amazon Frontlines. 


In December 2020, lawyers from around the world gathered to begin drafting a legal definition for the term ecocide. If they succeed, it would potentially put environmental destruction in the same legal category as war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. But there is still a long way to go.


While lawyers are expected to finish a draft of the law by the end of spring, it will take at least three to five years for the law to be ratified. After drafting the law, a member state needs to propose it to the ICC, and 50% of ICC states have to approve it. States will then need to assemble to debate the exact definition of the law before eventually adopting and ratifying it.