Ecocide, Earth rights and restorative justice: the three cornerstones of a growing international movement to establish new laws which protect both people and planet. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth10 was proposed by Polly Higgins in 2008 (as a Universal Declaration of the Planetary Rights).
‘The Ecocide Project: ‘Ecocide is the missing 5th Crime against Peace’ (2012)
A week ago I was in Belfast to hear environmental lawyer speak Polly Higgins speak about the urgent need for a law to make ecocide an internationally recognised crime. After Polly’s talk I was thrilled to meet with her – as some of you know I worked this time last year to present a motion at the Green Party of Ireland and Northern Ireland to support Polly’s growing international campaign to have Ecocide recognised as the missing 5th Crime Against Peace – it was unanimously supported. Polly had heard someone in Ireland had brought this into Ireland’s public arena via the Green Party and was thrilled to put a face to a name (she gave me an enormous hug and a friend snapped this picture straight after -thanks Jan!).
Even though I have read much of Polly’s work (and others working in this area) it was inspiring to hear her speak and particularly hear her answers to questions raised afterwards by the full house audience at the Great Hall in Queens’ University in Belfast. I expect many of you might think that looking at ecocide, even thinking about laws to prevent it, is very depressing and futile. However to be reminded again that much of the legal framework already exists – Ecocide is a recognised war-crime has been adopted by some nation states in peace-time since the 1970s. Vietnam for instance, as you might expect, has ecocide as a crime in its constitution since the Vietnam war as do some other post-Soviet countries (* see The Ecocide project paper at the end of this post). As I mentioned in my last post there are also ‘rights for nature’ groups developing across the world and a call for a new International Criminal Court for the Environment and Health.
Polly also spoke of the development of similar laws that made slavery and genocide internationally recognised crimes, the importance of firstly ‘naming’ such atrocities, as in the case with genocide, and how this shifted global norms to view these as firstly as unacceptable atrocities, then as crimes. She discussed that while the International Criminal Court has not eradicated genocide it has significantly decreased its occurrence and alerted the international community that this is a fundamental, punishable crime against peace.
It was also of great interest to hear the important difference between civic environmental policies and regulations like the Aarhus Convention that are slow and costly to effect and which in Polly’s opinion (and mine) are plainly not working to prevent ecocide. This contrasts the relatively rapid effect that making ecocide an internationally recognised crime would make. Civic regulation unfortunately more often than not ‘permits’ pollution and environmental degradation in never-ending degrees whilst an ecocide law would have a major impact to help change societal norms to how we may prioritise resilient environments now and for future generations.
From my perspective, I was particularly interested how ecocide crimes are already defined by size, duration and affect and the necessary transition period to allow States and corporations to move to non-ecocidal, non-criminal practices. In my own work in promoting Close-to-Nature continuous cover forestry and knowing that a few European countries have made clearfell forestry illegal it gave me more to think about. I wondered for instance if the proposed 5 yr transition period is too short a time-frame for forest industry infrastructure to adapt to. It nevertheless is extremely important to have transition periods highlighted in the framework of an Ecocide Law – this was a highly successful criteria, as pointed out by Polly, to move the British Empire industries quickly away from slavery. At the time slavery was claimed to be the necessary engine of economic superiority for the British Empire. This is much like how many in society today believe in the necessity of the ecocidal fossil fuel industry for contemporary society’s economic future**.
Working in the arts, I was also interested in Polly mentioning the various cultural activities that supported the call for new international crimes to be recognised in the past. For instance the surprising anti-slavery images on Wedgwood pottery that helped spread news about abolition to the upper classes of British society, the books and other cultural works. Polly has great faith that social media is an immensely important tool in getting a law against ecocide adopted more quickly than the 27 years of lobbying that English politician William Wilburforce endured to get slavery abolished. Polly also described ‘cultural ecocide’ too, the forced movement of indigenous peoples (still notably happening as we speak in South America, Central Africa and in recent times in Australia) from their forests and lands that destroys these peoples cultures and which diminishes humanity as a whole. This is particularly depressing when some of these cultures have lived sustainably on their lands for millennia compared to industrial growth society. Polly also clarified how an internationally recognised law of ecocide would not only criminalise man-made ecocide but enforce a duty of care to all nations’ environments. This would mean the international community would be legally required to assist nations facing naturally occurring ecocidal calamities. This will be of growing importance when many nations now and in the near future will be facing increasing environmental threats to their survival.
There was so much covered in Polly’s talk its hard to do it justice in a single post so I’m listing below the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ about Ecocide from Polly’s EradicatingEcocide.com website at the end of this post. Many of these questions were also raised on the night and I highy recommend Polly’s easy to read two award-winning books as well, Earth is our Business: changing the rules of the game and Eradicating Ecocide: laws and governance to prevent the destruction of our planet.
Also you might be interested that all governments have been sent a Concept Paper setting out a timeline of implementation for a law of Ecocide. The full document can be downloaded here.
There is also a template letter you can send off to your Head of State and Environmental ministers here. I think I might just send this letter off to our Irish Environmental minister Phil Hogan and alert him that the Green Party is bringing attention to this issue and that there is growing interest about ecocide Ireland. Hope you might do likewise and as noted in the paper below
“Governments should welcome the proposed Ecocide regime as a roadmap for meeting their developmental and environmental targets”. Wouldn’t it be great if Ireland as a small country so dependent on its environment surprised everyone to take a lead on this issue too.
** former Irish President Mary Robinson and growing numbers of international leaders are recognising to avert the worst of climate change injustice and environmental calamities that much of today’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/23/fossil-fuel-reserves-left-in-ground
Frequently Asked Questions
1) How do you define the crime of Ecocide?
Ecocide is the 5th Crime Against Peace – it is a crime against nature, humanity and future generations.
The legal definition of Ecocide submitted to the UN by international barrister and award winning author, Polly Higgins is “the extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished”. ‘Peaceful enjoyment’ is the legal term used in the tort of nuisance, which imposes a legal responsibility on those who cause diminution of or injury to life to such an extent that impact is severe. It is also sometimes referred to in law as a ‘fiduciary duty of care’.
2) What’s the process for making a new Crime Against Peace?
The Rome Statute is the governing document for the existing 4 Crimes Against Peace. An amendment to the Rome Statute requires 1 State party to call for an amendment and then a further 81 State parties to agree. 54 Small Island States all have looming Ecocides, from rising sea levels; South America believes in protecting the Earth’s right to life, and Europe already has existing case law that says where human life is being put at risk, we must create new laws. 82 signatories is a challenge that we can meet.
3) Why is an international law of Ecocide so powerful?
As an international crime, it stands to be recognised over and above national laws. The international Crimes Against Peace are in effect super-laws, that override national law, thereby taking supremacy.
4) In a nutshell, can you summarise what can be done?
Sure: 1. get at least 1 Head of State to call for an amendment to the Rome Statute to include a law of Ecocide, 2. Open the Rome Statute for signatories to sign up in support. 3. Once 2/3rds of the signatories sign up, a law of Ecocide becomes international law. Timewise, this can be done by 2020. Click here to read the summary.
5) What’s at the heart of this law?
It is currently the law for Chief Executive Officers and directors to put profit first. By creating a law of Ecocide corporations are empowered, by legal means, to put people and planet first. By making Ecocide a crime the moral and legal duty to prevent Ecocide trumps the current number one driver of business, namely the economic imperative. This is about giving persons of ‘superior responsibility’ in corporations, government and finance the legal framework in which they can choose whether to commit a crime or to become the drivers of innovation and leadership in a very different direction.
6) Who was Charles Grant?
Charles Grant was the Director of the East India Company, leading a multinational business at a time where the slave trade was not only legal, but an integral part of the global economy. He saw what companies were doing to the world, and he didn’t like it. He had the courage to speak out. His voice on behalf of the slaves, along with many other voices of the time, helped create a public mandate for the government to act. Within a few years, slavery became illegal.
7) How long will it take to get Ecocide made a Crime Against Peace?
Once an amendment to the Rome Statute has been agreed upon to include Ecocide, what has been proposed is a period of transition (5 years) when corporations will be given all the help they need to become the drivers for change and create the solutions for a green economy, and to help them thrive economically under the new legal and moral framework.
8) Why was a law of Ecocide removed in 1996 as an international Crime under the Rome Statute?
No reasons were given at the time. What we do know is that some countries had given statements of support for a crime of Ecocide and some countries even went so far as to object when it was withdrawn. All we have are the records of those meetings and the opinions of the UN Rapporteurs at that time who believed it was corporate interests that lobbied. You can read the full summary of those documents in the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium’s Ecocide Project research paper, called Ecocide is the Missing 5th Crime Against Peace.
9) Could this happen again?
Yes it could. But unlike last time, this time round, you know about this. Everything on this website is under a creative commons license so that you can share and spread this one law, so that this time round the public know what can be done.
10) How can we make sure that a law of Ecocide is put in place?
By creating a public mandate.
11) How can we make sure that a law of Ecocide is not relegated to a lesser definition than the one stated here?
By calling for what is required, not accepting something less.
12) What can I do to help?
If you have other questions please read through our extended document of FAQs on Law of Ecocide.
Related Ecocide Posts from Cathy Fitzgerald
- Proposed Ecocide law basis for new International Court of Environment and Health
- Eradicating Ecocide to make Sustainability in Ireland Legal (see easy to read format here
- The absence of thinking – Hannah Arendt and the totalitarianism of ecocide
- Success – UN promotes International Ecocide Convention but much work to do
- Austria set to lead on global law against Ecocide
- Further article on ecocide; a new legal framework to prevent fracking and other pollution