Criminalizing Ecocide

by Basim Hussain

What You Can Do

  • Spread the word about the Stop Ecocide movement, with help from the resources provided on their website here: [7]
  • Donate to the Democratic Socialists of America, who are working to promote a shift away from the capitalist system that is causing ecocide, here: [8]
  • Learn about the inherent link between capitalism and environmental destruction through Chris Williams’ book, Ecology and Socialism [6]

From Pope Francis to French President Emmanuel Macron, leaders from around the world have begun to call for “ecocide,” or widespread environmental destruction, to be labeled an international crime [1]. Doing so, they claim, would allow perpetrators of great environmental damage, such as the CEOs of large polluting corporations, to be held accountable. While this movement to criminalize ecocide is well-intentioned, simply labeling ecocide an international crime will do little to prevent it unless measures are taken to disrupt the underlying structures that have allowed ecocide to occur in the first place.

The term “ecocide” first emerged in the 1970s. It was used to describe the United States’ military tactics in the Vietnam War, in which the US employed chemical warfare such as napalm and Agent Orange to destroy large swaths of the Vietnamese jungle. This led to an international movement to label ecocide a crime, although at this time it was focused on acts of war, rather than environmental destruction during peacetime. However, this movement never went anywhere — by 1985, the UN had not concluded [2]. The concept of criminalizing ecocide was brought up again in 1996 in the International Law Commission’s Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind. However, by the time the code was completed, the provision against environmental destruction had disappeared, supposedly due to the objection of certain governments [2]. National laws against ecocide have since been enacted, but have been mostly ineffective. For example, in Guatemala, where there is a law against ecocide, a Guatemalan village brought suit against a palm oil company that had poisoned the village’s river, killing all the fish. The complainants were threatened into submission by the company, with one being murdered on the court steps, and the river was left polluted [2].

After a dying out of the term since the 90s, in 2017 the campaign to criminalize ecocide internationally gained new momentum with the launch of the Stop Ecocide movement. Founded by UK lawyer Polly Higgins and Jojo Mehta, the campaign calls for adding ecocide as “the fifth crime” to the International Criminal Court’s list of currently four crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression [3]. By doing so, CEOs and other corporate leaders whose businesses cause mass environmental destruction could be held accountable to the Court, under the same status given to war criminals [3]. The campaign has since gained mainstream traction, brought on by the rise of the youth-led climate movement as well as endorsements from groups such as Extinction Rebellion [1]. This mainstream popularity has seen a resurgence in ecocide criminalization on national scales. For example, in 2020, 99% of the French Citizens Assembly voted to make ecocide a crime, demonstrating the massive popular support the contemporary ecocide movement has been able to amass [4].

Despite this popular support, there are reasons to be doubtful that adding ecocide to the International Criminal Court’s list of crimes would have a significant impact. One issue with labeling ecocide an international crime is that historically powerful nations have been able to simply ignore the International Criminal Court’s rulings, with little to no consequence. For example, in the 1986 international criminal case Nicaragua v. United States, the US was found guilty of violating international law by arming Nicaraguan rebels and was told to pay $17 billion in reparations to the Nicaraguan government. To this day, the US has yet to pay any of those reparations, with Washington choosing to ignore the Court’s ruling, and the case has slowly disappeared from the public consciousness [5]. In addition, adding ecocide to the list of crimes would mean that only individual perpetrators could be held accountable, such as CEOs or other corporate leaders. While it might be symbolically powerful to hold CEOs accountable to international law, no guarantee doing so would change their businesses’ and corporations’ environmentally destructive practices. Fighting against these corporations rather than just the individuals that run them would require more than an international ban [2,4]. Furthermore, as in the example of Guatemala, there is no reason to believe that defendants in such cases could pressure plaintiffs to withdraw their claims, or have the cases themselves swept under the rug [2].

The means of fighting corporate ecocide do not rest in legal solutions facilitated through an International Criminal Court, but rather in an economic shift away from the capitalist systems that have encouraged corporations to commit ecocide in the first place. Capitalism forces corporations to ever-expand their exploitation of the environment to remain competitive with other corporations that employ the same practices [6]. Thus, simply holding individual CEOs accountable will not stop the capitalist system from continually forcing those CEOs’ businesses to commit ecocide. As David Whyte, professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool, says, “We should push through this crime of ecocide — but it’s not going to change anything unless, at the same time, we change the model of corporate capitalism” [4].

The campaign to make ecocide an international crime is a valiant and valuable movement, and one that warrants support as the stressors of environmental destruction continue to mount. But a permanent solution to the problem of ecocide lies not in making ecocide an international crime, but in dismantling the capitalist economic model that causes ecocide in the first place. Otherwise, the corporations that are currently ravaging the planet will have no real reason to stop.










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