In 2016, Professor Philippe Sands QC printed East West Road, which recounts the event of the ideas of genocide and crimes in opposition to humanity and their utility within the Nuremberg trials. Final November, 75 years after these trials, the Cease Ecocide Basis (SEF) convened a panel of attorneys, co-chaired by former Worldwide Prison Courtroom (ICC) decide Florence Mumba and Professor Sands, to draft a authorized definition of ‘ecocide’ that would type the idea for a brand new worldwide crime. The definition is because of be printed early this yr. 

Josef Rybacki

The idea of ecocide first gained vital worldwide consideration in 1972, when Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, addressing the UN Stockholm Convention on the Human Setting, referred to as for a global crime of ecocide, primarily in response to US use of chemical weapons within the Vietnam Battle. Nevertheless, when the Rome Statute was ratified in 1998, creating the ICC, environmental crimes weren’t included. In 2010, lawyer and environmental campaigner Polly Higgins lobbied the UN to create a global crime of ecocide. Though the UN rejected her argument, in 2016 the ICC mentioned it might assess cases of environmental destruction as ‘crimes in opposition to humanity’.

Because the detrimental results of worldwide warming have intensified, so too has political momentum in favour of criminalising ecosystem destruction. In 2019, island-states Vanuatu and the Maldives urged the ICC’s Meeting of States Events to recognise the crime of ecocide. This name was echoed by Swedish parliamentarians, who requested SEF to draft a definition of ecocide.

In line with SEF, ecocide pertains to ‘hurt to nature which is widespread, extreme or systematic’, together with ocean harm, deforestation, land and water contamination, and air air pollution. The time period due to this fact encompasses a variety of actions, however have to be drafted with sufficient specificity to make sure the definition has ‘adequate certainty’, the significance of which is summarised in R v Rimmington: Nobody needs to be punished underneath a legislation except it’s sufficiently clear and sure to allow him to know what conduct is forbidden earlier than he does it; and nobody needs to be punished for any act which was not clearly and ascertainably punishable when the act was achieved.

A major problem might be setting a sufficiently exact threshold to differentiate the actus reus of ecocide from bizarre environmental offences. To take an excessive instance, may the brink be decided by reference to hectares of timber felled, or quantity of waste dumped? The definition will extra seemingly replicate article 7 of the Rome Statute, the place crimes in opposition to humanity are outlined partially as ‘widespread and systematic’ acts; nonetheless this might restrict ecocide’s applicability in disasters resembling oil spills, which can be brought on by an remoted occasion of negligence.

Then there’s the query of mens rea. Ought to the crime be topic to direct intent, or would negligence suffice? Potential examples of ecocide cited by SEF vary from direct, deliberate army motion, resembling using Agent Orange and nuclear weapons, to disasters resembling Fukushima, Chernobyl and Bhopal. Acts of battle could also be captured by direct intent, whereas acts of negligence in all probability wouldn’t.

As for classes of individuals to be prosecuted, Decide Mumba referred to state/particular person duty, whereas SEF chair Jojo Mehta steered that most often ecocide can be a company crime. Nevertheless, prosecuting companies on the ICC would require vital, unrealistic amendments to the Rome Statute. Benjamin Ferencz, former Nuremberg chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen trial, has argued that company atrocities needs to be handled through particular person, somewhat than company, prosecutions.

The idea additionally raises questions of ‘nationwide sovereignty’. SEF lists goldmining as a problem that ecocide may tackle, however some nations would balk on the thought of criminalising entry to their pure assets. Would the extraction of some assets, resembling cobalt, be topic to a cost-benefit evaluation as a result of they’re vital for the event of recent sustainable applied sciences? If that’s the case, would the evaluation apply to environmentally damaging UK infrastructure initiatives, such because the Newbury bypass? Ecocide might have gained help from world leaders resembling Emmanuel Macron, however Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s feedback on deforestation within the Amazon, to the impact that the Brazilian rainforest is sovereign territory and the remainder of the world ought to thoughts its personal enterprise, foreshadow a few of the political resistance the idea is prone to face.

A extra possible consequence is that ecocide might be developed throughout the framework of crimes in opposition to humanity. The ICC has indicated that it’ll prioritise crimes that contain environmental destruction, exploitation of pure assets, and dispossession of land. It’s presently contemplating whether or not there are grounds for an investigation into Bolsonaro for crimes in opposition to humanity, referring to environmental harm and violations of indigenous peoples’ rights.

Ecocide might show an more and more fashionable trigger for politicians within the west, as invoking felony legislation means that environmental issues are being taken critically. Nevertheless, main points resembling carbon emissions, biodiversity loss and plastic air pollution are basically financial and political in nature, and require financial and political options. It is going to be attention-grabbing to see exactly how SEF defines ecocide however, for the explanations above, the prospect of ecocide’s imminent ratification as a global crime is distant. The first authorized danger in cases of large-scale environmental harm will in all probability proceed to emanate from the civil sphere of group actions and mass torts.


Josef Rybacki is an affiliate in WilmerHale’s UK white collar defence and investigations apply