“We need to change the rules”—Greta Thunberg, 2019

In 1970, American biologist Arthur Galston coined the term “ecocide” to describe mass environmental destruction. Galston was a critic of the Vietnam war, horrified by the extensive use of Agent Orange as a defoliant. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme then used the word in a speech at the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, warning that rapid industrial development could be depleting natural resources at unsustainable levels.

Galston proposed an international agreement to ban ecocide. Since then, various efforts have been made to follow up on his vision. Ecocide was included in the early drafts of the Rome Statute, the document that founded the International Criminal Court (ICC), but was dropped because of inadequate definition.

Recently the international organization Stop Ecocide International convened a panel of experts to develop a legal definition. The panel has arrived at its definition and Stop Ecocide is now proposing that ecocide be included under the ICC’s mandate. Currently, the court has jurisdiction over four core international crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. Ecocide would be the fifth.

The panel defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Elevating ecocide to the ICC’s jurisdiction would be a long process. A member nation would have to propose an amendment to the Rome Statute. Deliberation and debate could take years, and it would require a two-thirds majority of ICC nations to enact the amendment. Member states would then have to ratify the crime and include it in their own legislation.

It would be a struggle getting nations to agree. Most countries validate some form of large-scale environmental destruction. Who knows that better than Canadians with our tar sands and logging of old-growth forests. Such destruction is commonly critical to national economies. Determining if an activity meets the definition could prove as problematic as determining if actions taken against populations meet the definition of genocide. And then there’s the little problem that a number of major geo-political players, including the US, China and India, are not ICC members and don’t recognize its authority.

Gaining ICC recognition of ecocide as an international crime and then effectively pursuing cases is obviously a major challenge. It’s also a thoroughly worthy one. As Olof Palme pointed out 50 years ago, we are exhausting the planet’s resources. Including mass environmental destruction on the ICC’s mandate would be a significant step in recognizing the finite nature of life on the planet and the need to actively preserve it.

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