Success – UN promotes International Ecocide Convention but much work to do

clearfell (clearcut) site, Ireland

“We are all in someway implicated. Ecocide does not just happen on an enormous scale, over there in some distant continent, but also at far smaller levels too.”  Polly Higgins, Eradicating Ecocide, 2010, p.174

“The United Nations is to discuss, approve and promote among the Member States an International Ecocide Convention, aiming to protect the Earth and its living species and hold legally accountable institutions, organisms, organisations and their leaders.”
Polly Higgins, EradicatingEcocide, 13 Sept, 2013

On Friday I was excited to get this update from environmental barrister Polly Higgins, who you know from my previous posts, has been working on an international campaign to have corporate ecocide recognised in law as the missing 5th international crime against peace. Congratulations to Polly and her team and for all of us who have been signing petitions, sharing this proposed ecological law to rethink our relations to our environments (and thanks to some people on twitter also congratulating me for highlighting this topic in Ireland).

Polly points out that in the UN arena, Angolan Head of State José Eduardo dos Santos’ is leading the call for a law against ecocide in Angola. However Polly is disappointed, as I am, in his initial phrasing of ecocide which may have implications how ecocide is defined in law in other states. His definition of ecocide is disappointingly human rather than ecologically-centered, suggesting that preventing ecocide is positive so it can lead to more resource “development” for (human) populations’.

“Ecocide is defined as the destruction or degradation of various ecosystems in a certain territory, through human action or others, putting at stake the full development of the resources by the population” (dos Santos, 2013).

However, the establishment of an International Ecocide Convention is an important breakthrough and perhaps José Eduardo dos Santos’ statement shows how little understood the crime of ecocide is and the paradigm shift still needed to envisage and adopt ecologically-based law.  Polly concludes

So our job is not yet done. This is a law that has been proposed to put the life of people and planet first, not to put the safeguard of profit and resource exploitation first”.

Polly Higgins derives a law against ecocide by arguing for intrinsic value be extended to non-human nature. I therefore wasn’t surprised to read recently that she is the Oslo’s 2013/2014 Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment. Norwegian Philosopher Arne Naess proposed ecological views of nature in what he presented as Deep Ecology philosophy in the early 1970s. These radical theories promoted much understanding of how we must act to respect the interconnected ecology of life for all life to survive. Deep Ecology, while it has some limitations, has heavily influenced the modern environmental movement and Green Politics, and has been a theoretical framework that I have explored for my own work. This quote from Polly from her book Eradicating Ecocide shows the connection of deep ecological thinking and how it contrasts current law:

“Until relatively recently the prevailing belief was that we, as humans, have superior rights to the exclusion of rights being vested in other sentient beings. Superior rights implies the existence of superior responsibilities. It is the reliance by some on their perceived superior right without thought for the consequences and without application of their superior responsibilities that has led to our current crisis. We have accepted at the norm laws that have implied the right to destroy and the right to pollute extensively. Just because it is the norm does not mean it is a right. It is the (silent) right which fictional persons have obtained that have created so much damage and, as a consequence, an imbalance in our ecosphere so great that it is threatening to destabilise all of earth and mankind. Law shapes our society, our way of thinking, our behaviour. By imposing land the concept of it being a ‘commodity’ that can be owned and dealt with in a similar fashion to, say, a table, legal systems legitimise and encourage the abuse of the earth by humans” (Higgins, 2010, p.152-3).

Is there a precedent that a new law can make such widespread change?

One of the most powerful cases Polly presents is how slavery was abolished in England. However she thinks the same arguments against a law against ecocide will mirror those who wanted to retain slavery, that many businesses will claim a law against ecocide will destroy commerce. It took a long time, over 27 years for UK politician William Wilborforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) and his group of followers to succeed in changing the law to abolish slavery. That law has since created immense social change around the world. If you are inclined toward law and politics, rights of any kind, watching the 2006 film Amazing Grace about William’s campaign is inspiring (the film is full to the brim with with great acting if overly sentimental in places). If you can see the full film, watch it and think about how a law of ecocide will fare and also what a small team of committed people can achieve. Oh, and if William was around today, he’d be involved in the Ecocide campaign as he was the founder, also, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (it’s referenced in the opening scenes of the film)

Sign and Share now

sign and share now, thanks!There is ongoing online Europe-wide petition which you can sign to support a law against corporate ecocide here, and over 50 000 have signed it already. On Sept 21st, 2013, there will be widespread invitations to ask you and all you know across Europe to sign this petition as a million signatures are needed before a EU-wide referendum can be instigated.


* I have previously written about the ‘slow violence’ and invisibility of ecocide in industrial growth society and visual culture in an article here; Ecopornography, slow violence and the deep art of Place – it will be published as an upcoming article in the EarthLines magazine.

** I have written an article on Eradicating Ecocide in Ireland to legalise sustainability here (it describes how looking at a ecocide as a key term in my research led to me successfully propose a motion against corporate ecocide at the 2013 Green Convention of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

5 thoughts on “Success – UN promotes International Ecocide Convention but much work to do

    • Thanks Iain
      In as much as one can be hopeful that the UN progresses things – however, more familiarity of the concept at nation-level is good. Better people understand and investigate ‘ecocide’ than the ‘anthropocene’


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