Ecocide now has a legal definition, paving the way for it to become a fifth international crime, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.
The destruction of the Amazon rainforest provides a compelling example of ecocide, with effects on a global as well as a local scale. In 2020 alone, more than 1.8m hectares (4.6m acres) were affected by manmade forest fires, with vast implications for the region’s biodiversity and livelihoods. Brazil - home to more than half the Amazon rainforest - has seen a significant rise in the number of fires, according to US space agency Nasa and others.
Envionmentalists say that Brazil's President, Jair Bolsonaro, has encouraged cattle farmers and loggers to clear large areas of the rainforest. He has drawn intense domestic and international criticism for failing to protect the Amazon region, a vital carbon store that slows the pace of global warming. Could or should he be tried by the International Criminal Court for ecocide?
The draft law, drawn up by legal experts from around the world, was unveiled last week. It defines ecocide as: “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”.
Recognising large-scale environmental destruction as an international crime would bring two corollary effects. First, laws provide clear, long-term guidelines for financial decision-making and international aid. That something is morally questionable usually doesn’t hinder investment. Laws provide boundaries and sanctions for investment, as no company or organisation – such as the World Bank – would want to invest in something potentially criminal. Second, laws can lead to a shift in social norms. Criminalising ecocide at the highest level would bring public, corporate and governmental understanding that the protection of the biosphere – the thin and fragile layer of life that supports our societies – must be a top priority for all nations.
Making large-scale destruction of nature an international crime means that individuals can be held accountable. Such a move would surely be good news for the protection of the planet we call home.
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