Possible New International Crime: Eco-cide

Gigi Hanner

With Earth Day right around the corner, it is the perfect time to discuss the newest potential international crime: Environmental Suicide, or ecocide for short. Right now, lawyers are drafting a full definition of ecocide, which would later lead to prosecution for those who commit it. Making harming the environment a crime will prevent disasters like oil spills, excessive air pollution, or even the melting of the Polar ice caps.

The beginning of this movement began decades ago during the Vietnam War, when the United States government exposed enemy sanctuaries in Vietnam and other places to 19 million gallons of herbicides. This act caused cancers, birth defects, and significantly damaged the jungle.  Additionally, the act is said to have contributed to the deaths of over 3 million people. It was this act of environmental destruction that led to the term ‘ecocide’ to be coined by biologist Arthur Galston.

In 2002, a treaty called the Rome Statute included the crime of ecocide, but it was eventually removed due to the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom opposing it. It was made to be an offense only excusable during times of war, and should never happen during times of peace. But, since there is no exact definition, it is difficult to hold companies or governments accountable.

So far, Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron support this movement. The Pope defines ecocide as the “massive contamination of air, land, and water, or any action capable of producing an ecological disaster,” He has even gone so far as to say that perhaps committing ecocide ought to be a sin for Roman Catholics. This would be a huge step in the right direction, and would hopefully slow down and combat climate change.

There are already plenty of examples of what could be known as ecocide, including (but not limited to): the Chernobyl disaster, Deepwater Horizon, the Amazon Rainforest, and the tar sands of Northern Canada. Chernobyl has been dangerously radioactive since 1986 and has been long deserted. Deepwater Horizon in Mexico killed 11 people, spilled oil in the ocean, and killed unknown amounts of marine life over a period of nearly 90 days. The Amazon Rainforest has been burned down at startling rates, and gives out more Greenhouse Gases than it takes in. 

Since this crime is so enormously difficult to enforce right now, it is relatively easy to get away with. It is a very long and complicated process to create and enforce an international law, but it is still clear that is needed. Around the world, trees are flowering earlier than ever before, 1 in 4 mammals are threatened, sea levels are rising, droughts and heatwaves are occurring more often, and hurricanes are getting stronger. We can’t reverse the damage that has already been done, but we can criminalize causing more damage. 

Some even say that the destruction of the environment is a human rights issue. This can best be explained when looking at the United States during the Vietnam War. In addition to destroying nature in multiple countries, millions of innocent civilians suffered, and nothing could be done about it. By protecting nature, countries are also protecting their people, and keeping them safe and healthy. Looking further into Chernobyl, the cost of fixing environmental disasters is astronomical. If another Chernobyl-like incident were to occur, it would cost around 68 billion US dollars to fix. Not to mention that Chernobyl is now uninhabitable, and how devastating the immediate aftermath was. Radioactivity levels in the water rose, and the water supply for the city of Kiev had to be found elsewhere. 

Although many environmental disasters are an accident, they should still be criminalized so that no exceptions can be made. The Earth must be protected from more terrible incidents, so making ecocide a crime is a great idea. 

This is still a developing concept, and we don’t yet know what will come of it. But it is important to be informed when it comes to what’s going on with our world. Hopefully, there will be some action soon, and environmental disasters will be a thing of the past.