British campaigner urges UN to accept ‘ecocide’ as international crime

10/4/2010 Guardian A campaign to declare the mass destruction of ecosystems an international crime against peace - alongside genocide and crimes against humanity - is being launched in the UK.The proposal for the United Nations to accept “ecocide” as a fifth “crime
against peace”, which could be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC),
is the brainchild of British lawyer-turned-campaigner Polly Higgins.
The radical idea would have a profound effect on industries blamed for
widespread damage to the environment like fossil fuels, mining, agriculture,
chemicals and forestry.
Supporters of a new ecocide law also believe it could be used to prosecute
“climate deniers” who distort science and facts to discourage voters and
politicians from taking action to tackle global warming and climate change.
“Ecocide is in essence the very antithesis of life,” says Higgins. “It leads to
resource depletion, and where there is escalation of resource depletion, war
comes chasing behind. Where such destruction arises out of the actions of
mankind, ecocide can be regarded as a crime against peace.”
Higgins, formerly a barrister in London specialising in employment, has already
had success at the UN with a Universal Declaration for Planetary Rights,
modelled on the human rights declaration. “My starting point was ‘how do we
create a duty of care to the planet, a pre-emptive obligation to not harm the
After a successful launch at the UN in 2008, the idea has been adopted by the
Bolivian government, who will propose a full members’ vote, and Higgins has
taken up her campaign for ecocide.
Ecocide is already recognised by dictionaries, but Higgins’ more legal
definition would be: “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 ICC was set up in 2002 to hear cases for four crimes against peace:
genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression (such as unprovoked war), and crimes
against humanity.
Higgins makes her case for ecocide to join that list with a simple equation:
extraction leads to ecocide, which leads to resource depletion, and resource
depletion leads to conflict. “The link is if you keep over-extracting from your
capital asset we’ll have very little left and we will go to war over our capital
asset, the last of it,” adds Higgins, who has support in the UN and European
commission, and among climate scientists, environmental lawyers and
international campaign groups.
Although there is debate over how frequently people go to war over resources
such as water, a growing number of important voices are arguing this case. Most
recently Sir David King, the UK’s former chief scientist, predicted a century of
“resource wars”, and in response to a report on resource conflicts by campaign
group Global Witness, Lessons Unlearned, the UN appeared to accept many of the
Controversially, Higgins is suggesting ecocide would include damage done to any
species - not just humans. This, she says, would stop prosecutions being tied up
in legal wrangling over whether humans were harmed, as many environmental cases
currently are.: “If you put in a crime that’s absolute you can’t spend years
arguing: you take a soil sample and if it tests as positive it’s bang to
Under an ecocide law, which would be more potent because prosecutions would be
against individuals such as directors rather than the companies, traditional
energy companies could have to become largely clean energy companies, much
extractive mining would have to be scaled back or stopped, chemicals which
contaminate soil and water and kill wildlife would have to be abandoned and
large-scale deforestation would not be possible. “I’m only just beginning to get
to terms with how enormous that change will be,” admits Higgins.
Higgins will launch her campaign through a website – – asking
for global support to pressure national governments to vote for the proposed law
if it is accepted by the UN Law commission. The deadline for the text is
January, and a vote has been scheduled on other amendments in 2012. It would
need a two-thirds majority of the 197 member countries to pass.
Higgins hopes the UN’s “one member, one vote” system will help over-ride likely
opposition of some nations and vested business interests. She also believes many
businesses favour clear regulation because they fear a future public backlash.
And she cites how, when the US entered world war two, its car manufacturers -
despite initial opposition - made 10 times the number of aircraft originally
asked for. “It shows you how industry can turn around very fast.”

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