By Isabella Kaminski
The Pacific island of Vanuatu has called for ecocide— wide-scale, long-term environmental damage—to be considered an international crime equivalent to genocide.
At a meeting of the International Criminal Court in the Hague on Tuesday, ambassador John Licht of Vanuatu said the court should consider an amendment to the Rome Statute, which sets the court’s legal framework, that would “criminalize acts that amount to ecocide. We believe this radical idea merits serious discussion.”
The International Criminal Court is currently responsible for prosecuting four internationally recognized crimes against peace: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. A fifth could be included through an amendment to the Rome Statute.
The court’s authority extends only to the 122 nations that have ratified the Rome Statute, a list that does not include the United States, China, India and Israel.
Vanuatu, which is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, has been an advocate of climate justice at international forums for many years, but has been more vocal since 2015, when Cyclone Pam devastated the island, an example of a major storm whose impact was made significantly worse by climate change.
Vanuatu’s statement is a major victory for the Stop Ecocide campaign, which was launched by British lawyer Polly Higgins two years ago. The organization wants any agreed-upon criminal definition of ecocide to include the impacts of climate change as well as other forms of environmental harm.
Until now, Vanuatu was the only state to have formally announced it was working with the campaign, which provides diplomatic and practical help for countries to get to the negotiation table. The Republic of Maldives announced on Thursday that it was adding its support as well.
Ahmed Saleem, member of the Maldives parliament and chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Climate Change and Environment, said in a statement the “time is ripe” to consider an ecocide amendment, emphasizing how serious a threat climate change posed to his nation.
“We see little or no concrete action at multilateral level to bring about transformative
changes necessary to prevent the repercussions of climate change,” Saleem said. “It is time justice for climate change victims be recognised as part and parcel of the international criminal justice system.”
To change the Rome Statute, the head of a state that is party to the International Criminal Court must submit a formal amendment. If a two-thirds majority approve the change, it can be adopted into the Rome Statute and countries can formally ratify it.
The idea of ecocide has been around for nearly 50 years and had been under serious consideration in early drafts of the Rome Statute. But it was dropped due to resistance from a few countries including the United States and the United Kingdom.
According to the Stop Ecocide campaign, it is the first time since 1972 that a state representative has formally called for ecocide to be recognized at this kind of international forum.
Jojo Mehta, spokesperson for Stop Ecocide and co-ordinator of its international diplomatic and campaign teams, said she is optimistic that a formal amendment could be submitted as early as next year, although others believe it is unlikely to happen until at least 2021.
“This is an idea whose time has not only come, it’s long overdue,” said Mehta. “It’s committed and courageous of Vanuatu to take the step of openly calling for consideration of a crime of ecocide, and it was clear from the response today that they will not be alone. The political climate is changing, in recognition of the changing climate. This initiative is only going to grow – all we are doing is helping to accelerate a much-needed legal inevitability.”
Pope Francis has lent his support to the idea of making ecocide a crime, proposing in November that ‘sins against ecology’ be added to the teachings of the Catholic Church.