• A New Crime of Ecocide

    Two developments over the past week or so demonstrate how serious is the existential crisis we now face, in terms of the damage we are doing to our planet, and how far we are from facing up to our responsibilities.

    First, was the UN report on the millions of plant and animal species that have been, or are about to be, lost for good as a consequence of human activity over the greater part of the earth’s surface.

    And secondly, and disappointingly, was the government’s publication of its environmental targets, which fell far short of anything, especially with reference to methane emissions, that could legitimately be described as effectively grappling with the issues that inevitably arise in the wake of the human-led degradation of our planet.

    None of this should come as any surprise. Wherever one looks, there is unmistakeable evidence of a “business as usual” response to the alarm bells that are now ringing insistently. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to downplay the urgency of the situation, exacerbated in our case by a typically Kiwi “she’ll be right” attitude.

    Yet, wherever one looks, the evidence of growing crisis cannot be ignored. In terms of climate change, there seems little understanding of how close we are to a “tipping point” – and that’s assuming that it hasn’t already been reached – a “tipping point” that arises as the great polar ice caps melt away. The danger is not just the consequent rise in sea level that threatens the survival of coastal and island communities around the world; it is, rather, that the loss of the ice caps will generate a huge change in the various balancing factors – in terms of ocean currents and temperatures – that have maintained the climatic stability we have enjoyed until recently.

    And then there are the continuing projects to destroy vast areas of natural habitat, and to replace it with commercial crops. Again, the threat, from such as the palm oil industry, is not just to the survival of creatures (like orang-utangs) whose homes are being destroyed, but also to the natural balance that is needed to maintain the conditions for human survival.

    Depressingly, one must then add to this catalogue of impending disaster, the cavalier attitude that we humans continue to demonstrate on issues that reduce the chances of survival of species that are already threatened. By continuing to use fishing methods that predictably mean the persistent depredation of marine mammals, such as various species of dolphins, the trawler industry demonstrates how little we care about such “trivial” issues and how much priority we give to our own (supposedly more important?) short-term search for profit.

    The common characteristic of these attitudes is that everything pales into insignificance when measured against the commercial exploitation of the world’s natural resources and creatures. If, as I suspect is the case, the general response to this phenomenon – even from the perpetrators – is a shrug of the shoulders and the question “what else do you expect”, then it shows how much we depend on government to intervene in what is otherwise the over-riding pursuit of profit by private commercial interests.

    If, however, governments demonstrate (as our own government seems to have done) their unwillingness to act decisively and their impotence in facing down, in the interests of the planet’s survival, the business lobby, where else are we to go?

    If big international corporations have enough muscle to whip governments into line (as the fossil fuel industry has seemingly done with Trump’s administration in the US), what other remedy or discipline is available to ordinary citizens so as to ensure that proper responsibility for the earth’s survival is recognised?

    A clear answer to that question is being offered by a campaigning British lawyer. Polly Higgins has launched a campaign to create a new international crime; following the precedent of the emergence of genocide as a crime that could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, she proposes a new crime of “ecocide” – that is, the crime of acting in such a way as to destroy the world’s ecology and natural balance.

    Her proposal would make the “rapers and pillagers” criminally liable for the harm they do to the rest of us and would create a legal duty of care to protect the environment.

    Her argument is that governments have demonstrated their impotence in the face of the large-scale rape and pillage of our natural environment; so why not, she asks, pray in aid the provisions of international law. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens, alarmed for example by the large-scale destruction of areas of rain forest by commercial interests, be able to launch a prosecution against the perpetrators that would mean that they could be found guilty of a crime against humanity – just as they would do if they were responsible for a murderous attack on a particular group of people?

    Her campaign is gathering momentum, although she herself has suffered a setback, having been diagnosed with cancer. She is confident, however, that her campaign will survive her, and will eventually succeed. She has set up a group called the Earth Protectors to carry on her work. We must hope that she is right. As a former teacher of international law, I can only applaud. Our children need some protection against the destruction of their future.

    Bryan Gould

    10 May 2019


  1. Jeremy Callaghan says: May 10, 2019 at 8:28 amReply

    Sadly she died on 21 April this year. May her work live on. Jeremy

  2. CBD Oil Kansas City says: May 10, 2019 at 8:56 amReply

    Well I hope betterment of the planet become a success

  3. Roger Brooking says: May 20, 2019 at 6:43 amReply

    This article gives the impression that Polly Higgins came up with a proposal for ecocide to be a crime quite recently. In fact she wrote her book, Eradicating Ecocide, ten years ago.

    While such a law would help, it will probably never come into being because there are too many vested interests working against it. The fossil fuel industries continue to pollute the environment and will fight for the right to do so. A far more hopeful approach is civil disobedience advocated by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.

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