Environment and Law

Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD)

British campaigner urges UN to accept ‘ecocide’ as international crime
Proposal to declare mass destruction of ecosystems a crime on a par with genocide launched by lawyer
A campaign to declare the mass destruction of ecosystems an international crime against peace – alongside genocide and crimes against humanity – is being launched in the UK.
The proposal for the United Nations to accept “ecocide” as a fifth “crime against peace”, which could be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC), is the brainchild of British lawyer-turned-campaigner Polly Higgins. The radical idea would have a profound effect on industries blamed for widespread damage to the environment like fossil fuels, mining, agriculture, chemicals and forestry. See This is ecocide

George Monbiot: International law presents a radical challenge to the powerful: they could be judged by the same standards as the rest of us.
Polly Higgins … launched a campaign to have a fifth crime against peace recognised by the International Criminal Court. The crime is ecocide: the destruction of the natural world.
The laws of most nations protect property fiercely, the individual capriciously and society scarcely at all. A single murder is prosecuted; mass murder is the legitimate business of states. Only when these acts are given names – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of aggression – do we begin to understand their moral significance.
The same applies to nature. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 criminalises anyone who “intentionally picks” a single flower from a protected plant. But you can grub up as many as you like as long as it’s “an incidental result of a lawful operation.” Pick a buttonhole and you could find yourself in the dock. Plough out the whole habitat and the law can’t touch you.
Higgins gives some examples of ecocide: the tar sands mining in Alberta, the Pacific garbage patch, the pollution of the Niger Delta by oil companies. She points out that ecocide is rarely a crime of intent, but in most cases an incidental consequence of other policies. Company directors or politicians could be prosecuted individually, but instead of being fined they would be charged for the restoration of the natural systems they’ve damaged. The purpose of criminalising ecocide is to raise the costs of trashing the planet to the point at which it ceases to be worthwhile. This is the obvious outcome of a wider understanding of legal equality: why should private property be protected while the common wealth of humanity is not?

February 20, 2008
(Planet Ark) GENEVA – Climate change threatens the human rights of millions of people who are at risk of losing access to housing, food and clean water unless governments intervene early to counter its effects, experts said on Tuesday.
At a conference on climate change and migration, United Nations officials said rising sea levels and intense storms, droughts and floods could force scores of people from their homes and off their lands — some permanently.
“Global warming and extreme weather conditions may have calamitous consequences for the human rights of millions of people,” said Kyung-wha Kang, the UN deputy high commissioner for human rights.
“Ultimately climate change may affect the very right to life of various individuals,” she said, pointing to threats of hunger, malnutrition, exposure to disease and lost livelihoods, particularly in poor rural areas dependent on fertile soil.
Kang, a South Korean, said countries had an obligation “to prevent and address some of the direst consequences that climate change may reap on human rights”.
This may include providing safe housing, ensuring good sanitation and water-drinking supplies, and making sure citizens have access to information and legal redress, and take part in decision-making, she said.
Environmental disasters and natural resource scarcity have long been seen as contributors to displacement, for instance in Sudan’s Darfur region where 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes by conflict rooted in part in access to water.
But the United Nations has not yet expressly tackled climate change as a human right, for instance by enshrining the right to protection from its effects in an international convention.
Michelle Leighton, director of human rights programmes at the University of San Francisco’s law school, told the conference pressures from global warming could also force would-be migrants into the hands of criminals.
Some three quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural drylands are now degraded to some degree, she said, pointing to West African countries such as Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria as most acutely vulnerable to climate change-related damage.
Many people in Somalia, Mali and Cape Verde will also have little option but to leave their lands in coming years, and many are likely to turn to human smugglers for help in accessing more prosperous countries in Europe and elsewhere, she said.
“This is a big business now,” Leighton said. “If the climate change predictions come true, and we see much more pressure on agricultural lands in sub-Saharan Africa, we are likely to see an increase in illegal smuggling as well.”
Gordon Shepherd of WWF International told the session that such pressures must be addressed by the international community as well as governments. “None of us will escape the effects of the disasters that are facing the future generations,” he said.

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