Ecocide gets a new definition, and UCLA scholars played a key role


Mountain of landfill

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The newly drafted definition places the crime of causing severe environmental harm on the same level as other international crimes, like genocide.

Scholars from The Promise Institute for Human Rights, part of the UCLA School of Law, have played a large part in defining the new crime of ecocide, which could have significant implications for battling climate destruction.

The latest effort to produce a new internationally accepted legal definition of ecocide — meant to describe mass environmental destruction — had its roots in a 2020 symposium at UCLA. The event explored the connection between human rights and the climate crisis, and gave rise to a working group dedicated to exploring a new definition for the term. The group joined forces with a new international drafting panel, co-deputy chaired by Kate Mackintosh, executive director of The Promise Institute.

“It seems obvious, on a moral and intuitive level, that destruction of our environment should be an international crime,” said Mackintosh, whose work on the project was supported by UCLA Law students. “Our job was to bring together our collective knowledge of international criminal and environmental law, with the full picture of what’s been happening to the planet, and create a credible new international crime to take its place alongside genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“At the same time, we were keenly aware that the law can be a powerful vehicle for changing behavior.”

Ecocide isn’t a new term: It has been in the lexicon since the Vietnam War, when it was used to describe the immediate and long-term damage to humans, plants and animals caused by the defoliant chemical Agent Orange.

But in the decades since, with the effects of ecological devastation becoming more apparent and widespread globally, scholars and legal experts have launched staggered efforts to recognize ecocide as a crime of the same magnitude as genocide — which Mackintosh said could have had a profound effect in heading off the current climate crisis. Politics and shifting international priorities more or less kept those efforts at bay; while some nations adopted ecocide laws, the global community never fully embraced them.

That severely limited legal options to hold even the most destructive actors accountable, particularly because so much environmental damage crosses national borders and is intentionally committed in countries where weak laws and judicial systems make it easy to avoid accountability.

The newly drafted definition of the crime places the causing of severe environmental harm on the same level as other international crimes like genocide or crimes against humanity, a change that could revolutionize the way the world determines what constitutes a crime against the health of the planet.

In part, the document defines ecocide 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.”

For the new definition to become a part of international law, two-thirds of the nations that are signed up to the International Criminal Court must vote to adopt it. Only nations that accept the amendment will be bound by it. And in nations like the United States that are not part of the court system, environmental advocates must encourage elected officials to adopt the law on a federal level.

If the definition is adopted, ecocide would be the first new international crime since 1945, when the horrors of World War II fueled international support for common legal foundations against genocide and crimes against humanity.

Mackintosh said international law shaped by a new definition of ecocide would see corporate and governmental decisionmakers held personally responsible for their actions (or inaction).

“Ecocide law has been written so that individuals who have the ability to make powerful environmental decisions will understand they are personally accountable for the outcomes of those decisions,” she said. “Ideally ecocide law need never be used. The hope is that this will change the risk analysis in a way that leads to better choices for the environment. We all win when that happens.”

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