Comment | Is ecocide a crime against humanity?

Genocide is one of the four mass atrocity crimes alongside war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Ecocide is about to become one too.

Acts of genocide—the annihilation of human groups—are heinous because they erode just about everything that defines human nature. They break the social contract that maintains global order. 

The twentieth-century examples of the 1915 Armenian massacre by the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire; the extermination of European Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and other groups by Nazi Germany during World War II; and the killing of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda in the 1990s, are true horrors.

Elevating genocide alongside crimes against humanity was not about its global context but the severity of its effect on the human condition. 

So what about the destruction of nature? 

Is that a crime against humanity?

Photo by Dylan Leagh on Pexels.

Humans clear roughly 10 million hectares of forest and plant 5 million hectares each year.  

A proposed amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court would make ecocide a crime, defining it as

unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.

This is a bold move to call out environmental damage as potentially criminal. If adopted, ecocide would become just the fifth offence the court prosecutes—alongside war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and aggression—and the first new international crime since the 1940s prosecution of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials.

There are already environmental protection laws to prevent actions that damage the environment through pollution, illegal land clearing, and harm to plants and animals. These laws can be effective within a jurisdiction but are always open to interpretation and moderation according to political agenda when prosecuted.

Ecocide has become an international crime making it essential for actions that impact multiple states, including the effects of climate change, deforestation and impacts on migratory species.

Acts will only classify as ecocide if they are “wanton” – defined as “reckless disregard for damage which would be clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic and benefits anticipated”, that occur with “knowledge” of the likely impacts of actions and do “damage”—lots of subjective adjectives here.

Defining any new international crime is a tricky balance between the gravity, nature and extent of the harm from defined actions and the standards of proof, especially the moral standards that other international laws should follow. 

Even those without legal training can smell a defence or six in this kind of language, but it is a start—progress over perfection.  

What is less clear is who would be in the dock.

Perhaps multinational companies have exploited natural resources and left behind a mess—oil companies, mining companies and developers are obvious candidates.

Possibly jurisdictions would be prosecuted. But here, there are few innocent parties. Most countries have patchy records of environmental protection and every nation has cleared land, contributed to climate change and affected biodiversity loss.

It seems hard to imagine an individual in the dock in anything other than representing a larger legal entity.

But laws are not just about prosecution. They do offer deterrents.

Let’s hope ecocide becomes an international crime. If it makes one company or country think twice, it will be worth it.

Hero image from Photo by Julian Peter on Pexels


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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