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Ecocide as a criminal offense: are we all serious criminals, Ms. Mehta?

Environmental activists want people to be tried before the International Criminal Court for "ecocide" crimes. Stop Ecocide founder Jojo Mehta explains in an interview what that means exactly and why it would fundamentally change our legal system

GEO.de: Ms. Mehta, you and your organization are campaigning for the destruction of the environment to be recognized as a crime and even to be tried as "ecocide" before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Isn't that a size too big?

Jojo Mehta: No, the current system has not worked for decades. There are endless lists of civil laws and regulations that have not stopped our economy from destroying the earth to the extent we find it today - on the verge of a climate crisis. The criminal law before the International Court of Justice is the piece of the puzzle we are missing to really intervene and prevent the destruction of our environment. It is not civil law that tells society what is a legitimate act and what is not. Human life for profit, that doesn't work in our society because murder is a criminal offense. But if you want to extract oil or cut trees, you can get a permit or have to meet certain requirements. To really protect nature we have to bring it under this red line of criminal law.

Why internationally and in The Hague, why not look for local solutions for every country?

Every optimal criminal law is international. If it is not, companies and individuals can bypass it, register their profits and business in countries whose criminal law is lower than international standards. But when a country ratifies a law of the International Court of Justice, it undertakes to incorporate the law into national legislation. Another reason is the time pressure we have. To motivate all countries individually to recognize ecocide as a criminal offense would simply take too long. A coordinated, international approach is more effective - also because a country that introduces such laws alone is always the loser and attracts fewer investors. The law would also ensure equal opportunities among companies.

What is an ecocide?

Jojo Mehta founded the Stop Ecocide campaign with Polly Higgins. The big goal: The statutes of the International Court of Justice in The Hague are to be expanded. So far, people can be charged there with crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes or wars of aggression. The activists around Mehta also want to add the crime of ecocide to this list.

The activists often understand ecocide to be the serious damage or destruction of an ecosystem and a large-scale, serious or systematic threat to nature.

What do you mean with that?

There are many good and sensible approaches in our economy today; some companies have recognized that they can and do business more sustainably. But they are generally at a disadvantage compared to those who do not care about the consequences for the environment. That is why international criminal laws are needed: Firstly, to prevent companies from destroying nature. Second, to enable companies to operate sustainably and remain competitive.

But: “Ecocide” can mean anything and everything. But for an effective law the term has to be exactly defined, right?

We do not know what an exact legal definition will look like; this is what activists, legal experts, companies and states are negotiating with one another. The basis of an ecocide is that the peaceful use of the ecosystem is severely restricted by its non-human inhabitants. Here it becomes clear: It's not about small things, the term ecocide is only intended to describe serious acts that can destroy an entire ecosystem. It must also be shown that the perpetrator was or should have been aware of the consequences of his actions. This is different from other serious crimes. A genocide must happen with the intention of exterminating an ethnic group. However, no company has the intention to destroy the environment. They want to make a profit, an ecocide is always just collateral damage. With our term, it is therefore sufficient to know that an ecocide could happen - and in 2020 very few companies can claim that they have no idea what their oil production or tree clearing is doing to an ecosystem.

But where does an ecocide start and where does a bit of environmental degradation end? The 47th tree that is felled for a factory or the 294th barrel of oil that is extracted? How do you measure an ecocide?

That is not the point and the wrong question. Sure, conventional environmental regulations are always about numbers, about the extent of destruction. It is different in criminal law. If someone beats you on the street and is brought to justice, the judges won't count the number of scratches and bumps they have. It's about the act itself that the defendant thrashed you is enough to convict him of assault - not the number of scratches.

But then aren't we all responsible for ecocides? Couldn't I, as a consumer, also be dragged before the International Court of Justice?

Are the top military or child soldiers held accountable in genocides? It is similar with ecocides, it is always about those who control the big picture, who make the big, momentous decisions, not about the individual workers in a company. It's about CEOs and governments, not consumers.

There is also criticism of the term ecocide from a completely different angle: making ecocide a matter for the International Court of Justice equates environmental damage with human life. Usually war crimes and genocide are tried there, now it should be about trees and rivers. Do you equate a tree with a human life?

Genocide is the extermination of one ethnic group by another. With ecocide we want to describe the extinction of life on our earth - and that is not an exaggeration. If we destroy the rainforest, for example, the chances are not bad that the balance of our entire planet will be completely out of joint. And we're not that far away from it. The question also exposes a flawed basic assumption in our legal system.


Our legal system works on the principle of division. On the one hand the human being, on the other everything that surrounds him. The human being is not understood as part of nature, but decoupled from it: We are on earth in order to rule it, to use it for our purposes. It has nothing to do with reality. We are part of a network that keeps each other alive. At the moment we are in the process of destroying this network. An ecocide law could stop that - and yes, it would put nature on a par with humans.

That sounds like a profound change and is something different than doing without the to-go cup and the flight from Munich to Hamburg ...

There is no other way out. Otherwise we will always remain firefighters in the fight against the destruction of our earth, who do not fight the causes, but have to face ever larger flames. Our human-nature relationship has to change fundamentally: Failure to meet a few requirements is usually not a big problem for a company, and being charged with the ecocide offense would result in a huge loss of image. Very few company leaders want to appear in public as criminals. That is what makes an ecocide law so important.