New Internationalist

Putting the ‘I’ in ecocide

April 2012

22 April is Earth Day. Should punishment be made to those personally responsible for destroying our planet?

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Last year, a mock trial at London’s Supreme Court saw the jury take just 50 minutes to slap a guilty verdict on the CEOs of two oil companies currently devastating vast tracts of land in the Athabasca tar sands in Canada. Planet Earth 1, CEOs 0.

If Polly Higgins, ex-barrister and passionate environmental campaigner, gets her way, the crime of ecocide could soon be a reality. In April 2010 she proposed a new ecocide law to the UN. Higgins defines ecocide as ‘the massive environmental destruction that is harming people and our planet’ and believes that the only way to stop the devastation is to make CEOs and heads of state personally responsible for it in law.

Michael Mansfield QC, the leading human rights lawyer who acted for the prosecution in the mock trial, is adamant that individual liability is key: ‘The object of the Ecocide Act is not just aimed at companies,’ he says. ‘It is aimed at individuals. Individual responsibility is the only way there will be any change.’

Larry MacDougal/CP Photo
A devastated landscape: Suncor Canada’s oilsands upgrader facility on the banks of the Athabasca River. Larry MacDougal/CP Photo

While convincing profit-hungry CEOs to abandon environmentally destructive projects may seem like a pipedream, Higgins has outlined the steps to make it happen. First, raise global awareness of the campaign in the build-up to June’s Rio+20 Earth Summit: ‘a moment in history when world leaders can demonstrate their commitment to the Earth,’ according to Higgins. Next, convince the UN: just two-thirds of its 197 heads of state need to be persuaded in order to make ecocide an international crime against peace. And finally, ensure the new legislation is acted on – a CEO who faces prison if caught flouting the law will likely make very different decisions about the company’s direction, regardless of shareholder pressure.

Still not convinced? Higgins points out that history demonstrates what remarkable things can be achieved if people stand up and demand that their leaders do the right thing: ‘The moral imperative trumps the economic imperative each time – the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the end of apartheid. Each time we did something truly epic. This time our legacy is to unite people and planet as one.’

Brooks Elliott under a CC Licence

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 451 This feature was published in the April 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Patrick Gibb 01 May 12

    Considering that the parties to UN negotiations can't agree on a binding international agreement to combat climate change, it's highly unlikely that they could agree on a more radical proposal such as this.

    For this to work, national governments would need to be persuaded first. Until nation states are legislating ecocide of their own accord, the UN won't do anything.

  2. #2 Ken Franklin 14 Nov 12

    Please dont let this distract you from the more all encompassing path you are currently taking, but as an ancilliary measure you could even now serve a Memorandum of Injustice on each CEO. The Memorandum is a proto legal tool,
    it has no legal standing ’yet’ but seems to work quite well, reserving the right of all who sign it, or will later sign it, or their descendants, to recover by class action, from each individual CEO or their beneficial hiers, damages perpetrated by their actions. This removes the argument that the CEO was not aware at the time of the ultimate effect of their action and it quantifys the redress claimed in such a way that the financial gain to the CEO's estate can be directly linked to the bad decision they have made and tracked, with compounding interest applied till such time that the courts recognise the injustice of their action. A separate individually tailored Memorandum must be served on each person who stands to make financial gain and may be supporting the CEOs, and each person must be given an ’out’, a way of reversing their support in order to discharge their obligation and no longer face eventual class action. Overall the Memorandum has the effect of stopping the clock, while turning the spotlight on all responsible, causing some to bail out and further isolating the most recalcitent.

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This article was originally published in issue 451

New Internationalist Magazine issue 451
Issue 451

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