‘Historic Moment’: ‘Ecocide’ Definition Unveiled by International Lawyers

Lambert here: Interesting, but surely the International Criminal Court isn’t the forum to worry about. Rather, the ISDS system would be.

By Theodore Whyte, who writes for DeSmogBlog. Originally published at DeSmogBlog.

A team of international lawyers has unveiled a definition of “ecocide” that, if adopted, would treat environmental destruction on a par with crimes against humanity.

After six months of deliberation, a panel of experts yesterday published the core text of a legal document that would criminalise “ecocide” if taken on by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“This is an historic moment,” said Jojo Mehta, chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation which commissioned the team of lawyers. “This expert panel came together in direct response to a growing political appetite for real answers to the climate and ecological crisis.”

Balancing Act

In the draft law, the panel of 12 lawyers defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

If ratified by signatory states, ecocide would become the fifth international crime investigated and prosecuted by the ICC, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.

During a webinar marking the release of the document, panel co-chair Philippe Sands QC said the proposed definition would “cause us to think about our place in the world differently and it causes us to imagine the possibility that the law could be used to protect the global environment at a time of real challenge”. 

“None of our international laws protect the environment as an end in itself and that’s what the crime of ecocide does,” Sands added.

Mehta described the draft law as a “necessary guardrail that could help steer our civilisation back into a safe operating space”. 

“Without some kind of enforceable legal parameter addressing the root causes of these crises, it’s hard to see how the Paris targets and the UNSDGs [United Nations Sustainable Development Goals] can possibly be reached,” she said.

The panel said that the idea of “unlawful or wanton” acts would allow judges and prosecutors to balance consideration of these elements. This idea of balance could be vital to the law’s success if it is to be agreed to by the states that subscribe to the ICC, according to co-chair Sands, who said it avoids “setting the bar too low and frightening states who we need to adopt the definition, or setting the bar so high that it becomes effectively useless in practice”.

A team of lawyers published its proposed definition of ‘ecocide’ on June 22, 2021. Credit: Stop Ecocide Foundation.

Defining ‘Ecocide’

Mehta acknowledged that ecocide legislation was likely to meet resistance from some richer nations, as it would inevitably force changes in corporate practice, “by making severe and reckless damage to nature illegal, and therefore unlicensable and uninsurable”.

This would close the door on “the old polluting ways”, she said. At the same time, Mehta argued, adopting ecocide legislation may be economically beneficial for stimulating innovation in green industries.

Sands said that oil spills, deforestation, and the authorisation of new coal fired power stations could all potentially be considered ecocide under the definition.

However, specific acts such as these were left out of the final document, Mr Sands said, as doing so could run the risk of unintentionally omitting certain practices from the definition. 

 “This is not about catching every single horror that occurs in relation to the environment, but those horrors that cross a threshold and are of international concern,” he said, adding that it would be up to prosecutors and judges to form a view on whether a particular act is ecocide.

The campaign to criminalise ecocide, a term which was first coined in the 1970s, faces a number of further obstacles, with the entire process expected to take at least four years.

As a next step, any of the ICC’s 123 member states can propose the core text as an amendment to the Rome Statute treaty, before the annual assembly holds a vote on whether it can be considered for future enactment. It will then have to be approved by two thirds of the member states to go ahead, ahead of it being adopted by individual members into national jurisdiction.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Idiocrates

    “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”

    Ahem, are they perhaps (also) referring to the global experiment aka the vaccine drive? Look we’ve given the pharma companies a blank check with tax-payer money: so now it is reasonable to expect to see what they knew and when they knew it, about the medium to long term effects of the experimental vaccines.

    I mean if it turns out that the global rush to vaccinate everyone will actual make the COVID pandemic spiral out of control, who will know to bring the snake-oil peddlers to court? yeah, yeah, i know pigs don’t fly :-)

    1. urblintz

      “.. wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”

      Does this include the Pentagon’s wars of choice and aggression?

      …oops, too late.

  2. David

    IANAL but this looks to me like performative hand-waving of a type that Sands has been guilty of before. The idea is to start a political campaign with a veneer of legal terminology, in pursuit of laws that will never be enacted, or if enacted can never be enforced. It’s an aspect of the weird modern belief that if you only pass a law to make something illegal, it will thereby stop happening.

    But presumably, this extra provision, if it were ever introduced, would have to be governed by what’s in the rest of the Statute, and that is intended to punish individuals (not organisations or governments) responsible for what used to be called “war crimes,” based largely on the provisions of the Geneva Convention. (From memory, the GC do already contain something about environmental damage in wartime). Article 8 of the existing Statute deals precisely with “war crimes” for which (unlike “crimes against humanity”) there has to be an armed conflict in progress. And the ICC’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend to situations where states have decided not to prosecute, after a serious investigation.

    And so on. With deference to any lawyers in the house, this just seems a bit of hand-waving.

    1. jsn

      Yes, without an enforcement mechanism and political will to use that mechanism, hand waving.

      On the other hand, should such political will come into being some place, the tool now exists to be picked up.

  3. The Historian

    Good! Now we have a definition for ecoside and now that we know what it is, we can ignore it like we ignore crimes against humanity!

  4. Susan the other

    This is the beginning of a mechanism with teeth. To prevent small countries (Bolivia, DRC, etc.) from big corporations extracting minerals and leaving a toxic dump behind. To prevent clear cutting the Amazon. To prevent dumping raw sewage and barges of garbage into the international waters of the ocean; to prevent illegal disposal of radioactive material; the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, and more. It might be the reason, or one reason, dams are being torn down. Now we will stop and think before we do the next Levittown. Etc. Teeth like forfeiture and clawbacks will be good to add. Wondering if there is such a thing of a proffer of benefit to offset unreasonable extraction charges. Or will there be a mechanism to prevent the manufacture of excess or frivolous goods? I don’t know why this new legal avenue shouldn’t prevent the manufacture and sale of ammunition, etc. It will be interesting to see this unfold.

    1. Idiocrates

      I agree with your sentiment, but in my bitter little corner, I suspect it is more likely that this mechanism will come under the ‘rules based order’ and, like The Historian has suggested, will be ignored. Lets be realistic: I do not see who would support such a mechanism with teeth given that they are also the usual suspects making the ‘rules’.

    2. Cb

      But but…all of the things you have mentioned are explicitly lawful, and so not ecocide under this definition. I don’t know who this would apply to, other than “ecoterrorists”

      1. Susan the other

        I agree with both of you guys. The fox is in the henhouse. (Because that’s where the hens are.) But we do have very real consequences happening more and more frequently. At some point a free-wheeling extractive system creates a big fat gordian knot. I always remember when NC posted a “graph” of chaos. Anybody else spit their coffee that day? So, that’s what we’ve got, imo. ‘Tis a mess. The question we have to craft is, How do we prevent more destruction? The EU has defunded the petroleum industry – it is not going to invest in fossil fuel exploration. The EU has also been trying to define a new capitalism (amazing) – a sort of green capital capitalism. I think that’s a very good direction. And if I’m reading the zeitgeist correctly these days, most people are in agreement about the environment. So…things fall apart at first gradually, then suddenly. I’ll just add that it looks possible to me that solutions appear at first gradually and then suddenly. And we might be on the verge of good solutions. I’m always hoping.

  5. Eye 65

    This blog has nicely covered the environmental and human health hazards of PFAS, the ‘forever chemical’.

    A couple of weeks ago a chemical specialty high-tech lubricant plant in northern Illinois had a fire which could not be put out after a couple of days worth of conventional water response. Muni fire responders did not want the excess water runoff going into the river a quarter mile away. The company called an outside contractor to put the fire out with ‘the foam’.

    Similar incident an hour away for a lithium fire, in that water would not be the answer, but they dumped 20 tons of Portland cement on the fire to put out the reaction.

    Look out for more of the same in the short-sighted tech/environmentally conscious mindset.

  6. Michael

    The collateral damage will continue until the beatings increase!

    The beatings won’t increase until the protest gets serious.

    The protests won’t get serious until…what?

    When involved with a circular firing squad, what is the play?

    Two steps forward, one step back seems so antiquated.

  7. Mantid

    This all sounds good on paper. However I’m afraid it’s just shy of worthless.

    Can anyone think of any Americans who’ve been charged much less tried and heaven forbid, convicted of war crimes by the ICC? Remember Aubu Ghriab, Bagram, and other American outlets for torture? Drone strikes of civilians in countries they are not (theoretically) at war with? Oh, and a few other things that happened in Iraq with our assistance.

    I do appreciate the sentiment and perhaps it’ll set a precedent of some kind, but way too little, way too late, way too ineffective.

  8. steven

    So when are the heads of fossil fuel companies like Exxon going to be brought up on charges? And what about all those clever people at public relations companies they hired to tell us what we are now experiencing would never happen? Is there a book that names names so we can thank them or their heirs for the wonderful legacy they have bequeathed humanity?

    1. Mikel

      Additional things should be on the radar.

      “In the draft law, the panel of 12 lawyers defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

      Excessive mining, too (looking at you EV batteries, among other things).

      But above all that, the fresh water supply, #1 for the survival of organic life, needs to be protected. (Looking at you, thirsty microprocessing chips).

  9. Mikel

    Anything that gets in the way of some people’s sense of entitlement (to whatever, to whomever, wherever, and however they want) is labeled as causing a “crisis”, instead of the overwhelming sense of entitlement being noticed as the actual crisis.

  10. Don Midwest

    I first saw the term “ecocide” in a small book written by an attorney. He was so shaken by Trump’s election that the next day he began a book and finished it by Trump’s inauguration on Jan 20, 2017.

    Book title: “Heathen Earth: Trumpism and Political Ecology.”

    There are two outcomes, soft or hard ecocide. Hard ecocide is a nuclear war.

    Book available for download

    Here is the start of his bio at the law firm

    “Kyle McGee is a principal at Grant & Eisenhofer. Mr. McGee is the head of G&E’s Environmental Litigation Group, focusing on sovereign and public entity representation. Mr. McGee also regularly represents state and municipal clients in consumer protection matters, as well as relators or whistleblowers in qui tam litigation. In addition to environmental litigation, Mr. McGee partners with state Attorneys General and municipalities pursuing consumer protection actions against manufacturers of dangerous products, including pharmaceuticals..”

  11. Don Midwest

    Today I listened to a talk by the author of “Dump Philosophy: A Phenomenology of Devastation.”

    New words are needed for basic terms like air, water and the earth in order to make the major changes necessary. Water contains all kinds of dumped materials. Here is some info on the book

    “Ranging across philosophy, theology, ecology, psychology, and art, Michael Marder argues that the earth and everything that lives and thinks on it is at an advanced stage of being converted into a dump for industrial output and its by-products feeding consumerism and its excesses. Describing the dump’s fundamental characteristics and its effects on the body and mind, he contemplates wider physiological, social, economic, and environmental metabolisms in the age of dumping, as well as the role of philosophy caught in its crosshairs. Surveying the devastation that is today’s reality, Marder provides a frightening yet intellectually spellbinding glimpse of the future”

    Here is an article by MarderALL THE WORLD’S A DUMP

    The one hour segment was sponsored by the longest running public philosophy journal in the UK, The Philosopher. Tomorrow there is a free Zoom session at 2pm EST with Thomas Nail and Dorian Sagan. The theme is Nail’s new book “A New Theory of The Earth.”

    I did not know of Marder who has written many interesting books, nor Thomas Nail and I did know that Dorian Sagan is the son of the revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis and his father is Carl Sagan. Here is the summary information on them for the talk tomorrow

    “Thomas Nail is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. His current work focuses on the influence of mobility in the 21st century and the philosophy of movement broadly. His research has had significant international influence and has been translated into eleven languages, read in more than 200 countries, and cited across more than 20 academic disciplines. His new book Theory of the Earth is published in April by Stanford University Press. philosophyofmovementblog.com / twitter.com/xThomas_Nail

    Dorion Sagan is a celebrated writer, ecological philosopher, and author or co-author of twenty-five books, which have been translated into fifteen languages. As an ecological theorist he has been at the forefront of bringing our growing understanding of symbiosis as a major force in evolution into the intellectual mainstream, both within science and the humanities, and rethinking the human body as a “multispecies organism”. dorionsagan.wordpress.com”

    Here is the link where you can find out how to sign up. I think there will be three more topics this week


  12. Edward

    The question is whether such a law would be enforced. There are plenty of laws that are ignored these days. There does seem to be some movement toward legally sanctioning global warming offenders, however; even if such a law were not enforced today, it might matter in the future.

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