Magazine article New Internationalist

The Duty to Care for Our Common Home

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Duty to Care for Our Common Home

Article excerpt

2015 was an important year for climate lawsuits. The landmark Urgenda case in the Netherlands - in which the district court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch government had a legal duty of care towards current and future generations to lower its CO2 emissions - stimulated NGOs in countries such as France, Belgium and Norway to start similar lawsuits. In the US, eight youth petitioners who requested that the Department of Ecology in Washington State write a carbon emissions rule to protect the atmosphere had their moment of victory on 19 November, when Judge Hollis R Hill ruled that the State has a constitutional obligation to preserve, protect and enhance the air quality for current and future generations.

These rulings give NGOs and citizens powerful tools in their pursuit of climate justice. In 2016, the case for climate and environmental justice might be strengthened in an even more revolutionary way. Lawyers in different parts of the world are advocating the introduction of a legal duty of care towards the natural world. These lawyers recognize that our current laws and environmental regulations are failing to protect the natural world from over-exploitation and corporate abuse. They want to protect the integrity and functioning of ecosystems by making Ecocide - the massive damage and destruction of ecosystems, such as the Deep Horizon oil spill, deforestation of the Amazon, large-scale fracking or the Athabasca tar sands - an international crime. Their proposal is to add Ecocide as the fifth crime against peace to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, alongside crimes of aggression, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Origins of Ecocide

The term 'Ecocide' was coined by US biologist Arthur Galston. In the 1950s, Galston was part of a team of scientists who helped prepare a chemical component for the defoliant Agent Orange. When he was confronted with its use in the Vietnam War - poisoning human health and destroying vegetation on an enormous scale - Galston turned into a fervent anti-war activist. At the 1970 Conference on War and National Responsibility, he called the massive damage and destruction of the Vietnamese jungle an 'Ecocide'. The word derives from the Greek oikos, meaning home, and the Latin caedere, which means to demolish or kill. Ecocide thus translates as 'killing our home'.

Galston's plea to stop the Ecocide in Vietnam was picked up by anti-war protesters in the US and Europe. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, during his opening speech at the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, called the Vietnam War 'an outrage, sometimes described as Ecocide'.1 During the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of expanding the 1948 Genocide Convention led to extensive studies within the UN as to which crimes should be included; several countries supported the inclusion of Ecocide. The 1991 draftof the Code of Offences Against the Peace and Security of Mankind (the precursor to the Rome Statute of the ICC) included Article 26, which read: 'An individual who wilfully causes or orders the causing of widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment shall, on conviction thereof, be sentenced...'. In 1995, however, this provision was withdrawn from the draftCode by the International Law Commission. The Rome Statute now only prohibits Ecocide in times of war, which, probably due to its high thresholds, has never been invoked.

In 2008, Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins set out on a quest to develop a solid legal framework to protect the natural world. She came across the concept of Ecocide and in 2010 proposed that the International Law Commission modify the Rome Statute to include Ecocide. Higgins defines Ecocide as the 'extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory is severely diminished'. The term 'inhabitants' can refer to humans or animals residing in the affected territory. …

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