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What if Ecocide Were a Punishable Crime?

Trial Part of Campaign to get UN to Declare Mass Destruction of Ecosystems an International Crime

Tomorrow, a trial in the halls of United Kingdom’s Supreme Court in London will try two top business executives for Ecocide — the destruction of ecosystems to such an extent that people can no longer live in an area in peace.

Photo courtesy Marine Photobank.org Oil covers a beach and a struggling seabird on the Tuzla Spit in the Kerch Strait which connects the Black Sea
with the Sea of Azov. A 2007 image.

The trial, Living Planet v Ecocide, is not a real one but will be conducted as though ecocide were an International Crime Against Peace, which would place the destruction of ecosystems on a par with genocide.

The mock trial is part of a campaign to have ecocide declared the fifth International Crime Against Peace by the United Nations, which could be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. (The other four crimes against peace are Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, and Crimes of Aggression.)

To ensure the trial is as rigorous as possible a fully qualified legal team will be donating its time free of charge. The prosecution will be led by Michael Mansfield QC, a leading human rights barrister, and the defence by Christopher Parker QC, a heavyweight in criminal law.  The proceedings will be overseen by a serving judge and the trial's outcome determined by a volunteer jury.  The businessmen will be played by actors.

The charges will be one of the following ecocides: arctic drilling, deforestation, oil spill, hydraulic fracking, mining, deep-sea mining, unconventional tar sand extraction, peat-land removal.

The ecocide law is the brainchild of British environmental lawyer-turned-campaigner, Polly Higgins, who proposes that under the new law heads of states and directors of corporations be required to take individual and personal responsibility for their actions. Higgins has previously been successful in getting the to UN adopt a Universal Declaration for Planetary Rights, similar to the Declaration of Human Rights.

If adopted, the law could potentially change the way industries, corporations, and countries do business, especially since individuals rather than amorphous corporations would be held accountable. A 2010 report for the United Nations has found that 3,000 of the world’s biggest corporations caused $2.2 trillion of ecocide in 2008. Under an ecocide law, energy companies could have to adopt cleaner technologies, mining would have to be scaled back and forests would have to be preserved.

Photo by Ian Umeda Runoff from iron ore mines contaminate a major river in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh.

The importance of the mock trial on future legislation cannot be underestimated, as one of the prosecuting barristers, Jane Russell, explains:

“We have an opportunity now, as individuals and corporations, to put in place measures to control and restrict harmful and dangerous practices,” she says.  “We can either take that opportunity now or ignore it and suffer the consequences.  If we choose the latter path, there may be no going back".

This view is echoed by Robert Holtum, campaign director for Eradicating Ecocide, who said: “Criminalizing Ecocide will halt the large scale destruction of the environment at [the] source. Viewing the earth as a living entity with its own intrinsic value will ensure we treat it differently, and not as ... a resource waiting to be capitalised upon and exploited. Instead a new age of Earth governance will be ushered in underpinned by responsible and renewable energy creation."

The trial will be live-streamed across the world tomorrow. You can watch the proceedings here.

Chris Milton, ContributorChris Milton photo
Chris Milton is a UK based freelance journalist specialising in all things sustainable. His work regularly appears in The Ecologist and other notable scalps include The Washington Post (Foreign Policy) and republication by Scientific American. He was Society and Business Editor of Sideways News before “that money thing” happened and is currently working on a project about reducing the working week. In between times he blogs in a number of places on the Guardian’s Environment and Sustainable Business networks and spends far too much time on twitter.
Feel free to have a look at his (usually out of date) portfolio and investigate the truth of the twitter jibe.

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