“Event Recap: Understanding the Legalities of Ecocide” Sophie Sklar

On November 17th, 2021, the Nathanson Centre was pleased to host a virtual event entitled, “Understanding the Legalities of Ecocide”. This event featured two esteemed speakers, and guided listeners through a discussion of the legal definition of ecocide. While the legal definition of ecocide has not yet been adopted as an international crime relating to the destruction of the environment, countries across the world are starting to codify ecocide domestically. For this reason, and many more, understanding what exactly “ecocide” is and how the term developed is of pressing importance and contemporary concern.

The event featured contributions from Professor Christina Voigt and Professor Darryl Robinson. Professor Voigt is a professor of law at the University of Oslo and was previously a principal legal advisor for the Government of Norway in United Nations climate negotiations. Notably, she was a member of the Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide, making her one of the key individuals that undertook the task of providing the current legal definition of ecocide. Professor Robinson is a professor of law at Queen’s University and he served as a member of the Promise Institute Working Group on the use of International Criminal Law to protect the environment.

The two speakers shared meaningful and informative contributions surrounding ecocide and its current reception within the international legal community, as well as insights regarding the future of the crime of ecocide.

Present Research in Defining Ecocide

Defining the crime of ecocide itself is a relatively new venture within the international legal community. To contextualize this discussion, Professor Voigt shared some of her insights as a member of the Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide, which was established in 2020 by the Stop Ecocide Foundation. The Stop Ecocide Foundation has long advocated for the crime of ecocide to be elevated to the international level. The panel, as explained by Professor Voigt, was made up of twelve international lawyers with vastly different backgrounds and expertise. They were given six months to deliver on the mandate of launching a definition of ecocide to be proposed as an amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The definition created by the Expert Panel is as follows:

“Unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

The definition is then clarified by providing further definitions for terms within the definition. These are the additional definitions provided:

  • “Wanton” means reckless disregard for damage which would be clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic benefits anticipated”;
  • “Severe” means damage which involves very serious adverse changes, disruption or harm to any element of the environment, including grave impacts on human life or natural, cultural or economic resources;
  • “Widespread” means damage which extends beyond a limited geographic area, crosses state boundaries, or is suffered by an entire ecosystem or species or a large number of human beings;
  • “Long-term” means damage which is irreversible or which cannot be redressed through natural recovery within a reasonable period of time; and
  • “Environment” means the earth, its biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, as well as outer space.

According to Professor Voigt, defining ecocide required looking back into the rich research surrounding international environmental law, loaned from years of existing international treaty and customary law. Further, she highlighted that the Expert Panel had to be careful, respectful, and conscious of the history of the existing international crimes in the Rome Statute.

The Reasoning Behind Defining Ecocide 

Professor Robinson provided audience members with a case for why ecocide is an important crime to have. While he acknowledged the arguments against having a crime of ecocide (namely that responding to today’s most severe environmental crises will require considerable social reform), he stated that “as humans, we are destroying our planetary habitat” and called the destruction of the environment “one of the greatest global threats we face”. Ecocide, he explained, meets the hallmarks of an international crime. National regulation has proved insufficient to combat the harm caused and the scale of this harm is devastating. Ecocide as an international crime, he noted, also sends a message in addition to deterrence. As of now, environmental offences are regulatory crimes and Professor Robinson highlighted the need to reframe destruction of the environment as a stigmatizing, major offence. As he observed, “It’s not just a legal assertion, it’s a social assertion that ecocide is a crime.”

Professor Voigt added to the discussion by highlighting how the discourse surrounding ecocide can contribute to a change in consciousness towards environmental destruction. With the potential for ecocide to be criminalized most severely on the international level, Professor Voigt explained that this “can stimulate a reevaluation of our values” and can “also [act as] a tool to speak to people and stimulate change in consciousness.”

Complications in Defining Ecocide

The two panelists also pointed to some of the complications and challenges within the process of creating a legal definition for ecocide. Professor Robinson highlighted that creating international environmental laws is challenging, as they need to have an impact threshold that warrants international concern. This threshold needs to be lined up with international laws. He shared with audience members his view of ecocide as “the most interesting and challenging crime.”

Further, Professor Voigt highlighted the challenge faced by the Expert Panel in determining how to define the threshold of environmental damage to constitute a crime of ecocide. She stated that the threshold had to be high, in part to gain cooperation on the issue from the global community as well as buy-in from as many member states as possible. The panel therefore defined the threshold as involving environmental damage that is “severe and long-term or widespread”.

The Panel faced an additional challenge in defining ecocide since environmental destruction often happens completely legally. There was therefore a challenge of how to encompass these lawful acts and the harm they cause within the definition of ecocide. The Panel decided that for a lawful act to constitute as ecocide, it has to be wanton; the environmental damage must have been recklessly disregarded and it must disproportionally outweigh potential social or economic benefits.


The Crime of Ecocide: Looking Forward

Within the discussions of the important yet challenging nature of defining ecocide, both panelists highlighted the pressing need for a legal definition of ecocide, and their desire for ecocide to be elevated as an international crime. Professor Voigt summed up both the social and legal necessity of defining ecocide for young people when she told audience members, “we need young people to construct the thinking… surrounding the social understanding of ecocide.”

Overall, defining ecocide is an undertaking that operates at the intersection of law, economics, environmentalism, and the social values of humanity. Both panelists helped to conceptualize the current debates and challenges, as well as future hopes, surrounding this legal definition to the audience members.