Graphic provided by Stop Ecocide International

Isn’t Engaging In Ecocide A Crime? Shouldn’t Corporations Be Held Accountable?

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The mounting costs of housing, health care, child care, and college debt are wearing thin for US residents. Yet it turns out that average people are supporting ‘super corporations’ that pollute and that aren’t held accountable for the biodiversity loss and damage they impart. A credible argument can be made that these companies are engaging in ecocide — that long term, severe, and widespread devastation to the environment caused by persons in-the-know. And we should hold them liable for their actions.

Recognizable examples of ecocide include mining mountaintop erosion, bee colony collapse, earthquakes post-fracking, chemical defoliation, bird deaths due to pesticides, sludge spills, byproduct water and crop pollution, coral extinctions, and so many others. Ecocide includes acts of omission, too; after all, no one should go unpunished for destroying the natural world, right?

Then again, many in the business sector refuse to acknowledge their culpability, insisting that the Earth is a resource and ecocide laws tip the legal scales too far in the direction of protecting nature and away from human needs.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been widely endorsed by governments, civil society, and the private sector as a framework for creating a better world. Yet, as the 2030 deadline for achieving them looms, it is clear that most, if not all, will remain unmet. Most countries are way off-track. The goals require deep transformations in education, health, energy, land use, urban infrastructure, and digital platforms. They must be financed and implemented in an integrated manner. SDG actions often remain siloed, and strategies continue on unaligned.

Would international law charging big corporations with ecocide help to speed up progress toward SDGs?

Big Corporations, Ecocide, and International Law

Where does ecocide occur? It happens anywhere there are global commons: the oceans and seas beyond territorial waters, the atmosphere, outer atmosphere and their respective chemistry, Arctic, Antarctica, cross-border rivers and lakes, ground water, migratory species, biogeochemical cycles, even genetic heritages. Failure to prevent a rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which contribute to global warming, would also be considered ecocide.

Big corporations continue to deface the planet despite logjams of legislation, regulation, and activism. Perhaps as a result of what seems like an impasse, a handful of environmental lawyers have called for destruction of an ecosystem to be designated an international crime — at the same level as genocide or war crimes. Supporters say the public shaming of arrest and trial in the same courtrooms as dictators in The Hague could restraint their continued environmental negligence.

This international ecocide law could make a difference by setting a legal precedent, creating a rolling effect where international law could prompt changes in national criminal laws. After all, countries look to signal their environmental commitment or non-engagement across multiple domains to others. An ecocide law could help to prosecute environmental crimes that fall outside of national jurisdictions. This is especially helpful in poorer countries where legal barriers make it difficult to hold foreign companies accountable.

An ecocide law may open up a portal in which marginalized communities in countries have a voice against powerful, polluting actors. In fact, in a landmark ruling in 2021, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell Plc to do more to slash its GHG emissions, saying in the decision that “companies have the responsibility to respect human rights.” The reduction relates to Shell’s global operations and is not limited to the Netherlands, the court ruling said. By 2024, Shell had filed an appeal against the landmark climate ruling. A further appeal to the country’s Supreme Court is widely expected regardless of the outcome of this appeal. Scientists and environmental groups are skeptical of Shell’s stated plan to reforest and return industrialized land to its original state; opponents say such practices are basically subterfuge. They argue that companies like Shell should focus first on cutting emissions and offset only those that can’t be eliminated.

If the ruling is upheld, the equivalent of 740 million tons a year of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from Shell’s disclosures by the end of the decade. The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers said in a perfectly vague statement they “want to further improve the environmental performance and reduce the likelihood and consequences” of their actions.

Many people have spoken out about the importance of establishing ecocide as a crime, as noted by Bloomberg.

  • In 2019, Pope Francis urged the International Association of Penal Law to recognize ecocide as the “fifth category of crime against peace.”
  • Activist Greta Thunberg donated 100,000 euros ($119,000) in prize money to the Stop Ecocide Foundation.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 described forest fires in Brazil as ecocide and has promised to “carry on this fight on behalf of France.”
  • Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes has also expressed support along with politicians from Vanuatu and the Maldives, nations vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Without doubt, there are certainly disputes and legal challenges ahead as countries choose to join international adoption of ecocide law and enforcement of any subsequent actions.  If a country does not comply — if it does not arrest the accused individual — there is no trial. In addition, over 70 countries are not members of the International Criminal Court (ICC), including the US. Some of the biggest fossil fuel corporations, such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron, are US-owned, so they would be unlikely to be drawn into a prosecution. The ICC does not have the authority to enforce laws; it is completely reliant on its member states to arrest and surrender the accused.

Friends of the Earth have helped communities in the Niger Delta sue Shell for gas flaring, the burning of natural gas during oil extraction. The highly polluting practice caused mass disruption to communities in the region, polluting water and crops. Researchers found that those disruptions were associated with increased rates of cancer, blood disorders, skin diseases, acid rain, and birth defects — leading to a life expectancy of 41 years in the region, 13 years fewer than the national average.

Advocates of an ecocide law also believe it would change the way the environment is valued.

“There is something powerfully urgent about the idea that nature has rights,” Mitch Anderson told Time magazine. He’s founder and executive director of Amazon Frontlines, an organization that works with Indigenous communities in the Western Amazon to protect their lands. “The [ecocide] law would ensure that nature has a legal voice.”


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1368 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna