Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Ecological Intervention: Prospects and Limits

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Ecological Intervention: Prospects and Limits

Article excerpt

Violence in civil conflicts in the post-Cold War period has ignited a heated debate about the morality, legality, and legitimacy of humanitarian intervention. Recriminations continue against the failure of the United Nations Security Council to prevent massacres in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. But should the international community also be concerned about massacres perpetrated against critically endangered species? Must it stand by and allow a deliberate massacre of, say, the last surviving population of mountain gorillas by poachers? In considering this and other scenarios of grave environmental harm, this article seeks to extend the already controversial debate about humanitarian intervention by critically exploring the morality, legality, and legitimacy of ecological intervention and its corollary, ecological defense. By "ecological intervention" I mean the threat or use of force by a state or coalition of states within the territory of another state and without the consent of that state in order to prevent grave environmental damage. (1) By "ecological defense" I mean the preventive use of force in response to the threat of serious and immediate environmental harm flowing into the territory of a "victim" state.

If the legacy of the Holocaust was the Nuremberg trials and acceptance of a new category of "crimes against humanity," an emerging norm of humanitarian intervention, and, most recently, the creation of an international criminal court, then might the willful or reckless perpetration of mass extinctions and massive ecosystem destruction be regarded as "crimes against nature" such as to support a new norm of ecological intervention and an international environmental court. (2) If the international community condemns genocide, might it one day be ready to condemn ecocide?

In 2001 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an independent, international, twelve-member body established by the government of Canada to reconcile the international community's commitment to upholding humanitarian norms with the principle of state sovereignty, argued that sovereignty carries with it responsibilities, and that all states have "a responsibility to protect" their citizens. (3) In cases of serious harm, such as genocide and gross human rights violations, the commission argued that the international community has the responsibility to step in and prevent abuses where the responsible state is unable or unwilling to do so. In the words of the commission, in these circumstances, "the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect." (4) This article explores the analogous but more controversial argument that state sovereignty carries with it not only the right to control and develop territory but also the responsibility to protect it, and that states' responsibilities over their territories should be understood as fiduciary rather than proprietary.

The international community has already endorsed the basic idea that states have a responsibility to protect the environment in a wide range of environmental treaties, declarations, and action programs. Apart from environmental war crimes, however, states have so far declined to underpin their individual and collective environmental responsibilities with a minimal code of acceptable environmental behavior, the breach of which might in appropriate circumstances justify the use of force and/or prosecution in an international court. Yet it seems odd that the international community should accept environmental criminal prosecutions for "scorched earth" environmental atrocities committed during times of war but not in times of peace, even though some forms of environmental harm generated during peacetime may be no less grave and imminent--and there is not even the defense of "military necessity." (5) Indeed, we should expect standards of environmental protection to be higher during times of peace than times of war. …

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