The International Criminal Court (ICC) headquartered in The Hague is currently empowered by the Rome Statute to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression. A movement has been underway around the world (Stop Ecocide International) to add a fifth crime to its jurisdiction, namely ecocide – referred to in some circles as mass environmental destruction. There are Canadian and Toronto chapters of SEI.
The idea first came before the U.N. in 1972 at a Conference on the Human Environment. The movement was passionately led for ten years by British lawyer Polly Higgins until her untimely death from cancer in 2019 (The Guardian/Polly Higgins). In 2010, she proposed the following definition of ecocide to the U.N. International Law Commission: “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by any other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.”
Canada played an important role in establishing the ICC in 2002, and quickly adopted this regime through domestic law. It is one of 123 member states that are signatories to the Rome Statute, and two-thirds of them must agree before an amendment is approved. The ecocide amendment was formally proposed in 2019 by two of the state signatories. It has been supported by some other countries, but Canada has yet to make a decision. It has not said publicly why it is still sitting on the fence.
As a Canadian historical footnote, apart from regulatory and administrative pollution offences in provincial and federal legislation, the idea of creating a new domestic, federal, environmental crime to be included in the Criminal Code of Canada, was recommended in a report by the Law Reform Commission of Canada issued in 1985, titled “Crimes Against the Environment,” Working Paper 44. Unfortunately, the CCC was never amended to incorporate this recommendation. Elsewhere, ten countries have codified ecocide as a domestic, peace-time crime.
Ecocide was on the agenda for discussion at the 21st session of the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute on December 5-10, 2022 in The Hague. However, Canada’s support was missing once again. Meantime, a serious tipping point for the climate disaster is looming ever so quickly. An IPCC report on April 4, 2022 states that if GHG emissions have not begun to decline by 2025, world temperatures may increase beyond 2° C before the end of this century and massive, irreversible harm and destruction will accelerate.
For the purpose of the amendment, an Independent Expert Panel in 2021 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 these acts.” One can think of the enormous and widespread damage to the climate related to the decades-long, covert, disinformation campaigns directed by the fossil fuel industry. It intentionally did this in order to confuse and mislead the public and governments about the accumulating and irreversible harm which it knew was being caused by combustion of their products.
If adopted, ecocide will not be the first environmental offence in the Rome Statute. For example, the war crimes provisions prohibit an attack that will intentionally cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the non-human environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”
Pushing Canada to Vote for the Ecocide Law
A formal petition urging Canada to support the ecocide amendment was submitted to the Canadian government in 2020 by MP Jenica Atwin (Liberal MP, Fredericton) – see Petition e-2827 (Environment). The response from the Minister of International Development, Karina Gould is also included at this link. After three paragraphs of generalities she states: “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.” There was no response from anyone at Environment Canada.
Canadian international human rights lawyer Lisa Oldring has worked for the United Nations, but now works on climate justice cases and advises Stop Ecocide Canada. The following excerpt is from a press report in the Vancouver Sun on July 24, 2021 :
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. …
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.
University students in Toronto contacted SCAN! last year to request its support for the ecocide movement. The following excerpt is from a related article in the National Observer published May 31, 2022:
A dozen or so students from the University of Toronto are asking young people across Canada to tell the federal government that massive environmental damage and destruction should be an international crime. Toronto’s Stop Ecocide chapter published an open letter this week calling on the federal government to voice its support for criminalizing ecocide …
“As soon as you have this law that says massive destruction of the environment with knowledge is a crime, anybody who’s trying to make a corporate decision about that really takes it to heart,” said [Amalie] Wilkinson, who started the Toronto chapter last September. When environmental risk needs to be factored into a company’s investment decisions, some projects will become uninsurable, they said. “Not only is it about the cases that get tried, but it’s also about where the corporate decision-making just shifts because there’s that really strong legal red line,” she said.
Members of different federal political parties have come together to discuss and support the ecocide amendment campaign. A press conference was held on November 1, 2022 by Elizabeth May (Green Party), Alexandre Boulerice (NDP) and Jenica Atwin (Liberal) and covered by APTN News, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
Elizabeth May said: “If you throw a brick through a plate glass window of your local Starbucks it’s a crime. If you clear cut the last old growth forest and wipe out a species it’s ok if it adds to the GDP as long as you have a provincial permit.” The following excerpt is from the APTN press report:
There has been a small but growing number of world leaders including Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron speaking out against what is called ecocide, the widespread and long-lasting destruction of the environment. Both say ecocide poses a threat to humanity but remains beyond the reach of international criminal law. The Pope describes ecocide as “the massive contamination of air, land and water,” or “any action capable of producing an ecological disaster,” and has proposed making it a sin for Roman Catholics …
Jenica Atwin … said she was attending as an MP, not as a representative from the Liberal party and that she is speaking in favour of amending the Rome Statute. “I am here today to use my voice as a parliamentarian, as a mother,” said Atwin … “We are participating actively in our own demise,” said Atwin. …
Iceland, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, Finland and Spain have expressed varying levels of support for the idea and, the Belgian parliament voted to recognize the crime of ecocide at both the national and international level.
A list of Canadian groups and organizations urging the Canadian government to support the ecocide amendment is found here. An international petition for individuals to sign is available here. It includes the following message: “We call on all governments to declare support for making ecocide an international crime, in the knowledge that many countries must stand together to put this law in place for the long-term protection of all life on Earth.”
Please consider lending your support by telling the Canadian government to get off the fence and vote now to make ecocide an international environmental crime.
Alan D. Levy and Anneli LeGault are members of the SCAN! Legal Committee. Anneli has recently retired after 40 years of practicing law. Alan has worked in the environmental field as a lawyer, adjudicator and mediator.
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