Crime Without Punishment

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    Have you noticed how activists with environmental agendas have been suiting up lately, eager to move the action from streets to courts? A sign of our times, I assumed. Well, the movement is not all that new, really, as I was reminded only last week at a biodiversity-themed event organised by the PRI in Stockholm.

    Already back in 1972, at the UN environmental conference in Stockholm, that visionary Swedish prime minister of ours, Olof Palme, pushed for criminalising the most flagrant offences against the environment, introducing the concept of ‘ecocide’ to a broader audience[1]. Lawyers from all over the world have been debating the definition of the term and trying to devise ways to incorporate it into the established legal system for decades. Leaders of the secular as well as the religious worlds[2] have openly embraced the idea.

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    Yet, here we are, fifty years later, and ecocide is still not recognised as an international crime. The solid argument, that damage and destruction of nature brings not only death to ecosystems, biodiversity, and species habitat, but is ultimately a threat to human life, has so far failed to convince the legal authorities. The UN International Law Commission (ILC) briefly considered including ecocide in the Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind – yet dropped the idea in 1996. The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities contemplated for a while extending the Convention on Genocide – but no luck there either. Ecocide was actually included in the first draft of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – just to be removed at a later stage.

    There are too many unanswered questions, they say. Should it matter whether the destruction was intentional, or is the severity of the consequences in itself enough to classify nature destruction as a crime? Should ecocide be a crime in peacetime and wartime alike? What would an enforcement mechanism look like?

    And, so, time goes by, and outrageous crimes against nature, our common home and sustenance system, remain unpunished and unpunishable.

    Lawyers can be passionate, though, and tenacious. Some of them fight until death, literally. “Imagine a law that starts from first do no harm, that stops this dangerous game and takes us to a place of safety,” urged Polly Higgins, the British barrister and award-winning author who led a decade-long campaign for criminalising ecocide until she passed away in 2019.

    Luckily, others have taken up the baton. Listening to Caroline Mofors, an Ecocide Law Alliance board member, at last week’s PRI event, I could see that Higgins’ legacy lives on. To advance the cause, experts in international law from all over the world have now managed to agree upon a standard definition of ecocide. According to them, the concept includes “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”. This carefully crafted definition is a step forward.

    Of course, there are those who argue that criminalising ecocide is pointless as it will not address the root causes of climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Which is funny, as no one is naïve enough to hope that just because murder is punished by law, it will eventually eradicate violence, for instance. It is about seeking justice for the victims and holding criminals accountable. Ultimately, it is about creating a moral baseline.

    [1] The term ecocide was first used in 1969 by American plant biologist Arthur Galston to refer to the wilful destruction of the environment with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

    [2] Among the famous champions of criminalising ecocide are, for instance, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Pope.

    Image courtesy of 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay
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