October 18, 2021

T-Break

Let'S Talk Law

International lawyers define the crime ecocide

‘It is the most serious category of environmental crimes. We are not talking about ‘did you recycle?’ or how much red meat you eat,’ says Canadian human rights lawyer Lisa Oldring.

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Should crimes against the environment be included with other international crimes, such as genocide? An international group of lawyers thinks so.

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Canadian International human rights lawyer Lisa Oldring, who has spent most of her career working for the United Nations but now works independently on cases of climate justice, advises Stop Ecocide Canada, which is advocating to have the term recognized in international law.

An expert panel of 12 international criminal and environmental lawyers from around the world unveiled the legal definition of “ecocide” last month as a potential fifth crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The other four crimes currently recognized are genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression, and war crimes.

“With this fifth crime of ecocide the idea would be to recognize that there are certain acts against the environment that are just as serious and require accountability,” Oldring said.

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The definition is “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or longterm damage to the environment.”

Oldring said ecocide is a term that’s gaining international attention to describe a crime of mass ecological destruction.

“These are crimes that are of a gravity that trigger international concern and they are so serious that they cannot be left to the jurisdiction of states,” she said. “It is the most serious category of environmental crimes. We are not talking about ‘did you recycle?’ or how much red meat you eat.”

Examples could be the wanton destruction of rainforest or old growth forest that provide important habitat for ecosystems and carbon sinks.

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There are 123 states that can ratify that statute, so they would have to decide whether to add the crime. The international court can only prosecute individuals, and not corporations, however Oldring said they could prosecute a CEO of a company or a head of state, for example.

Stop Ecocide, a group that advocates for the term to be added into international law, is pushing for the states to discuss adding the term at its Assembly of States meeting in December.

From there, one or more states would have to table the amendment and then ultimately it would require two-thirds of those states to agree and vote in favour of adding it to the Rome Statute.

“We are at such a critical time internationally in our understanding of the interconnectedness and our impact on the environment. We are in an acute crisis that we are feeling,” she said, noting the deadly heat wave in B.C., the destructive wildfires, drought and even the pandemic.

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“These things are all connected.”

At the international court, it would be an individuals or several individuals who would be tried for ecological atrocities, and it would not be retroactive.

“If you didn’t know your action was criminal at the time then you shouldn’t be responsible for it,” she said. “That said it’s possible that with severe environmental destruction, if there is ongoing damage occurring it’s possible someone could be prosecuted for that. Even if the initial action took place earlier.”

There is currently no legal framework to deal with ecocide at an international level, and therefore no system to hold corporate and government decision-makers accountable for environmental damage such as oil spills, mass deforestation, ocean damage or severe pollution of waters.

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Oldring said there is growing support for an ecocide law, with interest from some island nations like Vanuatu and the Maldives and some European states including France, Belgium, Finland, Spain, and Luxembourg.

A request to Canada’s Department of Justice for information about whether the feral government supports the term becoming law has answered.

In November 2020, a parliamentary petition was submitted to the House of Commons by New Brunswick MP Jenica Atwin, calling on the House of Commons and Parliament to declare its support for an amendment to the Rome Statute to include ecocide.

The federal government responded, according to Stop Ecocide Canada, stating that Canada is “committed to be a world leader for climate, both in terms of environmental action and peace promotion, and will continue to follow closely the discussions on ecocide at the international level.”

Fifteen Canadian teenagers sued the federal government in 2019 for inadequate action to address the climate crisis. The case was struck down in October by a federal court judge, but the teens are appealing the court’s decision that the case cannot proceed because the claims don’t have a reasonable cause of action or prospect of success.

In the suit, the teens argue the federal government’s inadequate action on climate change violates their charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person.

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