‘Ecocide’ movement pushes for a new international crime: Environmental destruction

TANNA, VANUATU - DECEMBER 05: Helena Iesul searches for vegetables to collect from her family garden on December 05, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu. She said an extended dry season had affected her plants. She said, 'We cannot plant anything now, the sun is too strong.' Vanuatu’s economy is primarily based on subsistence and small-scale agriculture which provides a living for 65 percent of its people. Climate change is predicted to impact the rain-fed agriculture which is susceptible to drought or prolonged rainfall. Satellite data show sea level has risen about 6mm per year around Vanuatu since 1993, a rate nearly twice the global average, while temperatures have been increasing since 1950. Vanuatu’s government is considering suing the world’s major pollution emitters in a radical effort to confront global warming challenges and curb global emissions, to which it is a very small contributor. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This article was published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is part of “The Fifth Crime,” a series on ecocide.

In 1948, after Nazi Germany exterminated millions of Jews and other minorities during World War II, the United Nations adopted a convention establishing a new crime so heinous it demanded collective action. Genocide, the nations declared, was “condemned by the civilized world” and justified intervention in the affairs of sovereign states.

Now, a small but growing number of world leaders including Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron have begun citing an offense they say poses a similar threat to humanity and remains beyond the reach of international criminal law: ecocide, or widespread destruction of the environment.

The pope describes ecocide as “the massive contamination of air, land and water,” or “any action capable of producing an ecological disaster,” and has proposed making it a sin for Roman Catholics.

The Pontiff has also endorsed a campaign by environmental activists and legal scholars to make ecocide the fifth crime before the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a legal deterrent to the kinds of far-reaching environmental damage that are driving mass extinction, ecological collapse and climate change. The monumental step, which faces a long road of global debate, would mean political leaders and corporate executives could face charges and imprisonment for “ecocidal” acts.

To make their case, advocates point to the Amazon, where fires raged out of control in 2019, and where the rainforest may now be so degraded it is spewing more climate-warming gases than it draws in. At the poles, human activity is thawing a frozen Arctic and destabilizing the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

Across the globe, climate change is disrupting the reliable seasonal rhythms that have sustained human life for millennia, while hurricanes, floods and other climate-driven disasters have forced more than 10 million people from their homes in the last six months. Fossil fuel pollution has killed 9 million people annually in recent years, according to a study in Environmental Research, more than tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS combined.

One in 4 mammals are threatened with extinction. For amphibians, it’s 4 in 10.

Damage to nature has become so extensive and widespread around the world that many environmentalists speak of ecocide to describe numerous environmentally devastated hot spots:

The Gulf of Mexico, site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people, spilled at least 168 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean over 87 days and killed countless marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and migratory birds;
The Amazon, where rapid deforestation encouraged by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro prompted Joe Biden, during his presidential campaign, to propose a $20 billion rescue plan and threaten the Brazilian leader with economic sanctions.
The campaign to criminalize ecocide is now moving from the fringe of advocacy into global diplomacy, pushed by a growing recognition among advocates and many political leaders that climate change and environmental causes are tied inherently to human rights and social justice.

The effort remains a long shot and is at least years from fruition, international and environmental law experts say. Advocates will have to navigate political tensions over whether national governments or the international community have ultimate control over natural resources. And they’ll likely face opposition from countries with high carbon emissions and deep ties to industrial development.

The environmentalists must also figure out how criminal law would address climate change, which has been driven by practices like burning coal and gasoline that are not only legal, but central to the global economy.

The campaign to make ecocide a crime, however, is about more than law. Jojo Mehta, who launched the Stop Ecocide campaign in 2017 with Polly Higgins, a Scottish lawyer who died in 2019, describes it as a moral and practical issue as well.

“We use criminal law to draw moral lines,” Mehta said. “We say something’s not accepted, your murder is not acceptable. And so, simply putting mass damage and destruction of nature below that red line actually makes a huge difference, and it will make a difference to the people that are financing what is going on.”

Scott W. Badenoch Jr., an American environmental lawyer who favors the criminalization of ecocide, used the term to describe the state, and fate, of the Earth.

“Ecocide is now endemic all over the planet,” he said. “The structures of ecology that have held up living organisms on Earth, since time immemorial, are collapsing everywhere.” He added, “Ecocide is now, frankly, the process that we are living in on Earth.”

The fifth crime

The concept of ecocide was born of tragedy. Over a period of 10 years, the United States government sprayed 19 million gallons of powerful herbicides, including Agent Orange, across the countryside in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to expose enemy sanctuaries during the Vietnam War.

The dioxin-laced chemicals defoliated verdant jungle and caused cancers, neurological disease and birth defects in people living nearby. While the number of victims is disputed, Vietnamese groups claim there are more than 3 million. In 1970, Yale biologist Arthur Galston invoked the destruction to call on the world to outlaw what he called “ecocide.”

Source:-https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/ecocide-movement-pushes-new-international-crime-environmental-destruction-n1263142

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