Day 6

Why activists want to make ecocide a crime against humanity

Stop Ecocide wants to make harming the earth an offence on par with genocide, which could put leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro on trial at The Hague.

Environmental group Stop Ecocide wants the ICC to recognize ecocide as a crime on par with genocide

People take part in a climate change strike in Toronto on Sept. 27, 2019. Activist Jojo Mehta says the message behind the climate strikes, that politicians need to do more to protect the environment, fits with her group's advocacy around ecocide. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)
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As millions of people take part in global strikes demanding action on climate change, activist Jojo Mehta is hoping to take her message to The Hague.

Mehta co-founded Stop Ecocide, an environmental organization campaigning to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) to recognize "ecocide" as an atrocity crime alongside genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke with Mehta about what that would mean for world leaders, and why she believes it could help accelerate solutions for fighting climate change.

So what is ecocide?

It's exactly what it sounds like. 

"Ecocide is defined as large scale and systematic damage and destruction to ecosystems," Mehta explained. "In other words: serious damage to the natural, living world."

That includes the sort of cataclysmic weather events that push people from their homes, or make homes nearly unlivable.

The destruction also needs to have occurred as a result of decisions or mismanagement, by a person or group. Essentially, a specific person or group must be directly responsible for the effects.

"An example would be, potentially, deforestation of the Amazon where huge tracts of land are being destroyed, no doubt hundreds of species being wiped out in the process," Mehta said. 

"And there's also a kind of cultural ecocide there too, because those who depend on the forest for their way of life are being displaced."

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaking at the UN General Assembly. Because of the intense negative reaction to fires currently burning in the Amazon, Mehta called Bolsonaro the 'poster boy' for ecocide. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Would we be able to arrest the leader of a foreign country?

In the event a law like this is passed, then yes, Mehta says.

The ability to arrest foreign leaders isn't new, she argues, and rests on the principle of universal jurisdiction. 

According to the International Justice Resource Centre, universal jurisdiction is the idea that countries can prosecute non-citizens who have broken international law, "such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture — based on the principle that such crimes harm the international community or international order itself."

Mehta said that if the ICC passed laws against ecocide, as they have done for genocide and war crimes, individuals could be held accountable for crimes against nature regardless of whether their own country recognizes such law.

"Even if a country doesn't sign up and ratify it, if they are committing those crimes, and they set foot in a country that has ratified it, they can be arrested," Mehta explained.

The International Criminal Court building is seen in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 16, 2019. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters)

But would this ever get ratified?

Mehta says the proposal already has some support.

Any head of state that's a member of the ICC can propose an amendment to the Rome Statute, the court's governing document.

From there, what's needed is a two-thirds majority among the 122 member states to pass. That's definitely a big obstacle in seeing this sort of law passed — only 18 members are Asia-Pacific states, and the strongest support for this proposal comes from Pacific island states who are more urgently affected by climate change, Mehta said. 

One benefit of this setup, Mehta said, is that getting large, industrialized countries like Brazil, India, China, the U.S. or Canada to sign on isn't actually necessary to see it passed.

"The great thing about it in terms of getting it on the statute books is one doesn't actually need the big players to do that," she told Day 6.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame addresses a news conference in Kigali, Rwanda. Last year Kagame accused the ICC of bias against Africa, while others have called into question the court's ability to fairly prosecute leaders around the world. (Jean Bizimana/Reuters)

How would putting leaders on trial save the planet? 

While a law on ecocide would give governments the ability to prosecute, it's uncertain how likely they would be to follow through.

The ICC has been critiqued in the past for being perceived to have focused undue attention on African countries, while completely ignoring others, and for upsetting peace processes by indicting sitting politicians. 

Mehta said that in an ideal world, by the time ecocide was recognized by the ICC as an international crime, there would be no one left to convict.

During the time it would take for the law to be proposed and passed, countries would recognize this was coming down the line, and amend their actions to ensure they wouldn't break the law.

"By the time this is actually on the statute books nobody will be in the dock because everybody will be doing different things in different ways," Mehta explained.

"We believe that a law like this actually will have to come into play at some point. All we're trying to do is accelerate that point in order to protect humanity."


To hear more from Jojo Mehtadownload our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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