Ecocide Law - A defining step for environmental accountability

Ecocide is severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment and it is destroying nature on which we all depend.

It also undermines many sustainable businesses.

Overwhelmingly, it is perpetrated by a small number of actors.

Examples of ecocide occurring today:

• Large-scale destruction of forests

• Oil exploitation in the Niger Delta

• Canada's tar sands

There is currently no effective way to stop mass destruction of ecosystems. Law is missing, and only law can fill the gap.

"If you have a screw that you need to undo, you need a screwdriver of the right size. ... Nothing else will do." ... "We don't have a big screwdriver."



Ecocide law in the News.

Why would business promote this law?

"If you have no high-level crime, there is a lot of pressure on the CEO to take a short-cut which may be environmentally a very bad idea."

Since business is increasingly global, international legislation is necessary. In addition to protecting vital ecosystems, such legislation sets boundaries for how profit can be generated. This will contribute to fair competition.

By protecting carbon sinks in living nature, criminalising ecocide will also reduce climate related risks.

Those who act decisively, ensuring their business is taking a lead for the future, are likely to be more successful than those who lag behind.

Open support from business and other organisations is crucial, because there are powerful industries that have short-term profits to gain by continuing what they are doing. Their voices will be marginalized when responsible business leaders clearly voice the need to criminalize ecocide.

Standing up for ecocide law is an ethical choice. It shows a commitment to sustainable business that goes way beyond simply abiding by current regulations.

Making that ethical choice may also be a boost for your business: increasingly, the cream of the young generation is opting to work for organisations driven by a purpose that goes beyond profit.

Making ecocide an international crime will help protect people and planet.

Why criminal law?

Criminal law has a strong relationship with society’s sense of right and wrong. Making ecocide a crime creates a new moral baseline whereby anything causing mass damage or destruction of natural ecosystems will become unacceptable.

By affecting values, criminalizing ecocide is a powerful lever for systems change.


The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) lists four serious crimes:

  • Genocide
  • Crimes Against Humanity
  • War Crimes
  • Crimes of Aggression (recently added)

The Statute can be amended to add a fifth crime: ecocide.

On June 22st, 2021 a robust legal definition of the proposed crime was presented by an international panel of top-level lawyers headed by Philippe Sands, QC and Dior Fall Sow. The panel was convened at the request of parliamentarians from governing parties in Sweden.

Podcast of Professor Philippe Sands, QC, Co-Chair of the drafting panel, answering questions about ecocide on American University radio.



The simple four stage process to change the law

1.  Proposal

Any state which has ratified (officially agreed to) the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) may propose an amendment.  There are currently 123 of these “States Parties”.

THE POWER OF THIS: As soon as a state (or group of states) submits a proposal, we will start to see changes in the way corporations behave. Investors, banks and insurers will start to avoid dangerous investments because they will know the law is coming within a few years. ‌‌The transition period is essential to enable businesses to adapt.

THE BEAUTY OF THIS: Corporate success depends on public and investor confidence. A law of ecocide on the horizon will therefore begin to redirect business and finance away from harmful practices, unleashing innovation for sustainable business and boosting sustainable businesses.      ‌

2. Admissibility

This requires a majority of those present and voting at the next annual assembly of the ICC to agree that the amendment can be considered.

THE POWER OF THIS: The ICC Assembly works on a one-state, one-vote basis. The voice of a small Pacific island is therefore just as powerful as that of a large nation.  (And there are lots more of them.)

THE BEAUTY OF THIS: There has never been a more suitable time for this discussion.  States will want to be seen to be taking this issue – and therefore this amendment – seriously.

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3. Adoption into the Statute

This requires at least a 2/3 majority of States Parties (currently 82/123) to be in favour of the amendment. It is likely to take place at a special Crime Review Conference, where the final text of the amendment will be discussed and agreed amongst States Parties.

THE POWER OF THIS: Once the law is adopted into the Statute, the crime exists (even if it is not yet enforceable). This gives it immediate moral power in people’s minds. Changing values is the most powerful lever for systems change, far more powerful than, say, changed tax incentives.

THE BEAUTY OF THIS: Harming nature will begin to feel the same as harming human beings.  This will help us to grasp the fact of our connection with the natural living world. Without a healthy Earth, there can be no healthy human beings.

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4. Ratification

States Parties can then ratify (officially submit their agreement), and must enforce the law in their own country one year later.

THE POWER OF THIS: Ecocide becomes a criminal offence in the countries where it is ratified.  Beyond that, under universal jurisdiction principles, any ratifying nation may, on its own soil, arrest a non-national for ecocide committed elsewhere, as long as they consider the crime to be serious enough. So even countries which are not States Parties (for example the US and China) will be affected.

THE BEAUTY OF THIS: The more countries ratify the crime, the more the big polluters will find their room to operate shrinking… and the more appealing it will become to work in harmony with nature.

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"You know that what you are doing is damaging the Earth", said barrister Polly Higgins, "so why do you keep doing it?"
"Because it is legal", replied the senior executive.


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