environment human rights

An end to ecocide

Ecocide is the fifth ‘crime against peace’, alongside crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression. It is, essentially, the destruction of an ecosystem to the point that it seriously diminishes the quality of life of its inhabitants. Most countries only recognise four of those, and ecocide has no official designation in international law at the moment. If a company or government destroys a landscape in the course of business or development, there is no international court that can hold them to account.

It might sound like a somewhat nebulous idea, so let me give you an example. There have been problems in the Niger Delta for decades, but in 2008 a Shell pipeline broke twice in a matter of months. The resulting spills polluted and water, and an estimated 11,000 local fishermen lost their livelihoods. Those fishermen were victims of ecocide.

There has been a long running campaign to get ecocide recognised in law, as a tool in holding businesses to account for environmental destruction. The latest round in that campaign is to get it discussed in the EU. There is a petition that has to get a million signatures to move forward, and here’s the summary video about ecocide and why it matters.


  1. Geoncide require both the intent to destroy a whole racial group and it the physical act of doing so. So if ‘ecocode’ were the environmental equivalent of genocide then it would require intent. Are you saying Shell intended to to pollute the delta?

    By making a false comparison between genocide and pollution you are cheapening genocide and making yourself look shrill.Distasteful.

    1. I make the comparison because, quite simply, it is the fifth ‘crime against peace’ among the countries that recognise all five. The other four are Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression.

      For those unaware of that broader context, I’ve now added it.

      1. Hardly a compling statement, for those who recognize it as the fifth crime against peace it is the fifth crime against peace. For those who don’t recognize it as the fifth crime against peace it isn’t.

        1. There’s a whole debate behind the concept of ecocide, one you can look up if you’re so inclined. And if you’re not inclined, feel free to go and read something else.

          1. I did look it up and to sit with other crimes against peace it would principally be concerned with governments or similar using destruction of ecosystems as a weapon. Intent is key as with the other laws. Neither would suit Shell’s pollution. So either it won’t do what you want or it should sit as a crime against peace.
            This smacks of trying to borrow the moral stature of the other four laws to do attack companies. Wrong approach.

  2. DevonChap -While waiting for J. to respond I just want to say – Surely Jeremy is merely providing food for thought and the video is not making a comparison between the two acts but, merely using genocide (and the rest), as examples of how these laws can be brought against such wrong doing (to encourage those who need to know).

    Three thoughts came to my mind – 1. I thought ignorance was no defence in the eyes of the law. 2. If we always have to produce the action and the intent, won’t this ‘after the horse has bolted’ be too late, (and an ineffective deterrent), when applied to ecocide? 3. I’d have thought that genocide and intent would be inseparable?

    1. Again due to Jeremy’s poor drafting we are debating what we think he means rather than it being clear.
      If you want a special category of crime you have to show why it is worse than the existing ones. Pollution is a crime. If genocide is worse there has to be something worse about the action. Intent is a major aggravating factor. Same with murder. I suppose this could be like manslaughter, but manslaughter is less emotive which defeats the point.

      1. DC – With the latest report stating climate change as ‘unequivocally’ human made and close to irreversible, surely it is necessary to make ecocide a special category, distinct from pollution, due to its scale and gravity (affecting the whole world to the worst degree that we are aware of). And with the evidence weighing heavily to claim intent, there should be a method for preventing those who have the greatest effect (rather than bringing them to court after the damage), as we are all too aware of the damning consequences. At the very least, the question is too important to allow us to continue as before. Law, I thought, is intended to be made according to reasonable behaviour and reasonable doubt, is it not?.

        1. If you classify climate change as ecocide them pretty much the whole of humanity is guilty. We can’t try ourselves and it doesn’t help to over dramatise issues. Law has to have a point, it isn’t for propaganda which I fear this is.

          1. Yes we are pretty much all guilty, that’s why I said ‘those who have the greatest effect’. But it seems as if you do are in no hurry to stop the greatest producers of damage to the earth, without whom, the rest of us can do little damage? I don’t want to blame them, I want to reduce further damage on this scale to assist with time to hopefully find better answers. That would be the law’s point for me. Clearly, there are so many forces at work and many complex areas involved. I am, no doubt, out of my depth, but thanks for responding to my thoughts.

            1. I do want to stop pollution and other ecological damage but these things are illegal already. Making something doubly illegal doesn’t do anything. It is just gesture politics. I think BP is being punished enough for the Gulf oil spill. It doesn’t need made up crimes added to it. Having a crime of ecocide wouldn’t have stopped the spill. If it was strong enough to deter such things it would be so draconian as to deter most economic activity and we’d be living in the cold and dark.

                1. Growth is the solution. Developed countries are cleaner than undeveloped ones with higher standards. Just look at river water quality in the UK or US, it has improved massively in the last 30 years. There appears to be a Kutzens curve for pollution.

                  It doesn’t need making up new global laws. In Nigeria’s case it needs enforcement of existing laws. You haven’t explained how making something doubly illegal would help if both laws are then ignored.

                2. Your last sentence amounts to – How can something useless be useful! You have given your own opinions to provide question and answer!

                  I just did a quick search for Kutzens curve and couldn’t find anything useful for me to understand. So, without that, it simply seems to me that the issue is something like, can we allow more pollution and damage to destroy ecosystems and people’s lives? You say you want to stop pollution and other ecological damage and then say growth is the answer, and others feel that growth cannot occur without more pollution and damage which is unethical and will eventually overload everything. Is it possible for you to explain briefly how your growth is possible without more pollution and damage, or, are you saying it ultimately becomes the better trade-off. Otherwise I’m sorry, but you lose me.

          2. For a summary of my point that growth reduces pollution look at this special report in the Economist a couple of weeks ago.


            The basic argument is that poorer countries don’t care much about pollution and ecosystem destruction and don’t have the administrative ability to do much even if they did. Richer countries do. Most populations, when their country reaches a given level of wealth start to be concerned about the environment and are prepared to spend money to protect it. So what you get it an initial increase in pollution as countries populations grow and/or start developing, then they reach the point where concern for the environment starts and then measures are taken to control pollution, clean air and protect endangered animals.

            An example is Hispaniola where Haiti (GDP per person $771 per year) is barren of forests while the Dominican Republic (GDP per person $5,736) still has plenty.

            On to narrow point as to this proposed law of Ecocide. The other crimes against peace that this is meant to sit with concern conflict and war. If this proposed law concerned destruction of environments in war time (think Saddam draining the Iraqi marshes to defeat the Marsh Arabs or the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam) then it would sit comfortably. But it is is too broad, being concerned principally with accidents (so lacking intent) by non state actors which should more properly be dealt with by the countries they occur in. Indeed another illustration of why growth is good is to compare Shell in Nigeria (where the pollution is barely punished due to a poor weak government) and BP in the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon spill has been massively punished by the USA.

            1. Thank you for that DevonChap. I’m aware that I cannot assess the real picture or debate on a political level as I do not have anything like sufficient information. It seems to me that we begin to care for the environment only when we have damaged it enough to be concerned that we may well suffer if we do not, and there are those who delay this in various ways (accidental and intentional), because they are still busily trying to benefit from it. As a result, what actually gets done may look good but is probably rather insignificant overall. Caring for the environment when we can afford to sounds like an oxymoron to me, (rather like, waiting to remove an unmaintained boiler that is spewing carbon monoxide, when you feel well enough!) I wonder how much more our ecosystems can take of such delayed responses, while we wait for an effective long-term solution, indeed, if it can possibly exist. I have to remain on the fence, feeling that growth is not likely to be a long term solution, and that the opponents are more likely right, but possibly too optimistic.

    1. It’s true that companies don’t actively try to pollute, so the intent thing isn’t there. But if they don’t actively try to avoid it, then surely it’s still their fault? I think Ecocide should still be a crime against peace, even if it doesn’t carry the same level of moral disgust that genocide does. There isn’t anything that could compare to genocide, why are we even judging ecocide against that?

  3. Ecocide should be recognized as a crime not just for the purpose of prosecution in black/white, guilty/not guilty terms, but as the far end of a continuum that every human endeavour can be measured against. When we have that yardstick it will be easier to measure corporate and government decisions against their impact on the biosphere. We need to have that yardstick in place because the yardsticks of profit and (worse) growth will be the death of us all. http://solvealltheproblems.wordpress.com/

    1. That’s an interesting perspective, and a more positive one than inventing a new crime to punish corporations with, which is how ecocide is often perceived. Thanks.

  4. I guess poeple are aware of Polly Higgins’ recent early death, just before Greta Thunberg spoke to Parliament IIRC. I wondered if you thought it’s worth covering her work as a retrospective, Jeremy? Her organisation/website also has a declaration that seems worth publicising (and people signing up to).

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