10 April 2010

Ecocide -- an international crime?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. British lawyer/campaigner Polly Higgins would like to add a fifth: the crime of ecocide.

My Oxford dictionary defines ecocide as "destruction of the natural environment, especially when willfully done." Ms. Higgins would like to define it, for the purposes of international law, as "The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) 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." The inhabitants she refers to are any species, not just Homo sapiens.

Ms. Higgins justifies adding ecocide to crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC by claiming it is essentially a crime against peace. "Ecocide is in essence the very antithesis of life," she says. "It leads to resource depletion, and where there is escalation of resource depletion, war comes chasing behind." Her argument has considerable merit. Sir David King, Great Britain's former chief scientist, predicts a century of "resource wars," and a report on resource conflicts entitled Lessons UNlearned by the group Global Witness has convinced many skeptics of the threat of resource depletion.

Higgins has already achieved success in her environmental efforts. In 2008, she launched a campaign for a Universal Declaration for Planetary Rights, modeled on the human rights declaration, and the Bolivian government plans to propose a full members' vote on the idea in the United Nations.

Her proposed ecocide law has support in the United Nations and the European Union, among climate scientists, and among environmental lawyers and organizations. If successful, it would have a major effect on energy, farming, mining, forestry and chemical industries. The effect almost seems to overwhelm Higgins herself when she says, "I'm only just beginning to get to terms with how enormous that change will be."

But it's an idea whose time has surely come. Our offences against nature are so immensely destructive, it seems perverse not to call them crimes when offences against members of our own species that are trivial by comparison are subjected to severe criminal prosecution.

Anyone with a desire for justice toward our fellow species will wish Higgins success in her mission. You can follow her campaign at http://www.thisisecocide.com/.

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