No new international crimes have been recognised since 1945. Events in Ukraine could change that

When seismic data emerged that the Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine may have been blown up on 6 June, a former Ukrainian minister warned that the breach could be Ukraine's "worst ecological disaster since the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown".

Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyi initially condemned the dam's destruction as an act of Russian terrorism on Twitter - but has since characterised it as a "crime of ecocide".

Ukraine is one of the few countries to recognise ecocide as a crime under its domestic law. Interestingly, so does Russia, which has recognised ecological crimes since the introduction of a new criminal code in 1996. Under Article 441 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, ecocide is the "mass destruction of flora or fauna, pollution of atmosphere or water resources, as well as committing other actions that can cause an environmental catastrophe". The offence is punishable by "imprisonment for a term of eight to 15 years".

Without such a law, Ukraine would be unable to prosecute environmental damage as ecocide. Indeed, legal recognition of ecocide has made it possible for Ukraine's Office of the Prosecutor General to begin urgent investigations into the dam's destruction as a possible case of ecocide. It has also enabled Ukraine to investigate broader environmental damage resulting from Russia's invasion.

This ongoing probe, which involves teams of Ukrainian scientists, conservationists, bureaucrats and lawyers, has been described by some commentators as "the most detailed wartime tally of environmental destruction ever undertaken".

But Ukraine has also been highlighting something else: the need for a greater international focus on ecocide. When Zelenskyi first announced his ten-point peace plan to world leaders at the G20 summit in Indonesia last November, ecocide and protection of the environment featured.

Ukraine's championing of the criminalisation of ecocide can be seen as a conscious attempt to project an international image of an environmentally conscious state. But it must also be laid alongside historical global efforts to have ecocide recognised as an international crime. These efforts have come to the fore with greater intensity in recent times.

Coinage and currency

Diplomats, scientists and lawyers have long tried to push for ecocide's recognition as an international crime, inspired by what Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin managed with the term 'genocide'. Lemkin coined the term in 1944 by combining the Greek word genos (meaning race) with the Latin suffix -cide (to kill). He subsequently persuaded states to recognise genocide as an international crime through its codification, four years later, in the Genocide Convention.

Similar attempts began for ecocide in the 1970s, shortly after the term was coined by Arthur W. Galston, a professor of biology at Yale University. It was meant to describe the general feeling of outrage against the US's destruction of Vietnam's natural environment by chemical defoliants and herbicides during the Vietnam War. But the attempts to make ecocide an internationally recognised offence were unsuccessful, attributable in part to broader Cold War politics and power dynamics. In the ensuing decades, therefore, not only did ecocide remain a term devoid of legal significance, but global interest in its criminalisation also waned.

By this time, four specific acts - genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression, and war crimes - had been successfully recognised as international crimes. These, alongside the Nuremberg Trials, represented some of the principal responses to the atrocities of the Second World War. Widely characterised as "unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity" and therefore sitting at the apex of a hierarchy of heinous offences, these acts were seen to require a global response. Perpetrators of these four specific acts are prosecuted and punished by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But in an age when a global ecological crisis is unfolding and there are strong demands for climate and environmental justice, ecocide's non-recognition as a crime under international law seems grossly out of step with the times.

Stop ecocide

This is why Stop Ecocide International (SEI), which is focused on legal frameworks for environmental justice, is campaigning for ecocide to be recognised as an international crime.

In doing so, it is leading the global effort to bring about what can be regarded as the most radical change to international law in more than 70 years. For context, no other act has emerged as a candidate for international criminalisation since the recognition of the four existing international crimes.

The global campaign has made significant inroads. Its proposed international legal definition of ecocide, drafted by an independent expert panel, is currently the subject of discussion within international diplomatic circles and academia. Its proposal to amend the Rome Statute, the ICC's founding treaty, to include ecocide has also been debated within the United Nations and the European Parliament.

What is most striking about its campaign, however, are the novel and creative methods it is using to mobilise support. It has successfully rallied diplomats, politicians, lawyers, corporate leaders, non-profit organisations, Indigenous and faith groups, influencers, academic experts and other prominent individuals. They have also found unique ways to use art and music to amplify their campaign, particularly by devising global installations.

By contrast, when international crimes were established in the past, this was exclusively spearheaded by states and the process of global recognition largely unfolded through closed-door negotiations among diplomats.

So why is ecocide still not an international crime?

International criminalisation

As a researcher focusing on the historical origins of international crimes, I am especially interested in understanding how and why only some egregious acts have been successfully recognised as such.

International crimes do not magically appear out of nowhere. Rather, like all social facts, they must be actively crafted and constructed by social actors and collectively imagined into global reality through a unique combination of activism in law, diplomacy and politics.

What does this specifically require? My research has found that the necessary ingredients include a global consensus on the legal definition of an act; the presence of global agitators actively pushing for it to be criminalised; and compatibility with existing international priorities and global sentiment. As many of these factors are already present, or are being consolidated in ecocide's case, it can be thought of as a new international crime in the making.

What was lacking until now was a political element, a world event that spurs global actors into believing that criminalisation is the only viable solution. The world has seen ecological disasters in the past - acid rain, the ozone hole, major oil spills, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster - but none was accompanied by these other political factors.

It remains to be seen if the environmental fallout from the bombing of the Kakhovka Dam will be the necessary political shock that will result in ecocide's recognition as the fifth crime in global politics.

From openDemocracy

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