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Push to Criminalize Ecocide


The Maya train project in Mexico, designed to connect tourists with historic Maya sites, has raised concerns about its possible adverse effects on the environment and culture. This controversy highlights the discussion around “ecocide” and the increasing worldwide push to make environmental harm a criminal offense.


GS III: Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Ecocide: Killing One’s Home
  2. Arguments in Favor of Criminalizing Ecocide
  3. Arguments Against Criminalizing Ecocide
  4. Present Status of Ecocide Acknowledgment in India

Ecocide: Killing One’s Home

  • The term “ecocide” originates from Greek and Latin, conveying the notion of “killing one’s home” or “environment.”
  • Legal Description: There is presently no universally accepted legal definition for ecocide. However, in June 2021, a group of lawyers assembled by the NGO Stop Ecocide Foundation put forth a proposed definition. It aims to classify severe environmental harm as akin to crimes against humanity. According to their proposal, ecocide is described as “unlawful or reckless actions conducted with the awareness that there is a significant probability of causing severe, extensive, or lasting harm to the environment.”
Historical Context
  • 1970: Biologist Arthur Galston was the first to draw a connection between environmental devastation and genocide, an internationally recognized crime. He made this connection when addressing the use of Agent Orange, an herbicide, by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
  • 1972: Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme also referenced this concept in a United Nations speech, warning that uncontrolled industrialization could lead to irreversible environmental damage.
  • 2010: A British lawyer played a pivotal role by urging the United Nations’ International Criminal Court (ICC) to officially acknowledge ecocide as an international crime.
  • Current Legal Framework: The Rome Statute of the ICC currently addresses four major offenses: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The provision related to war crimes is the only statute that can hold an offender accountable for environmental destruction, but only if it is intentionally caused during armed conflicts.

Arguments in Favor of Criminalizing Ecocide:

  • Preservation of Ecosystems: Ecosystems have evolved over millions of years, and recognizing the environment’s intrinsic value acknowledges the importance of preserving these intricate networks of species and interactions in their natural state.
  • Environmental Entity: Ecocide laws address a gap in environmental protection by recognizing the environment as an entity deserving safeguarding, beyond its utilitarian value.
  • Biodiversity Debt: Ecocide is seen as accumulating a “biodiversity debt” that future generations must repay. Criminalizing it reflects society’s obligation to leave a sustainable planet for posterity.
  • Complement to Climate Agreements: Addressing ecocide through criminal law complements international climate agreements by directly targeting root causes of climate change, including large-scale deforestation and uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction.
  • Legal Accountability: Criminalizing ecocide adds a legal dimension to environmental protection, holding individuals and entities accountable for actions that harm the climate.

Arguments Against Criminalizing Ecocide:

  • Development vs. Conservation: Critics argue that defining ecocide may create tensions between development goals and environmental conservation, potentially hindering economic growth in some cases.
  • Sovereignty Concerns: Some view ecocide laws as encroachments on national sovereignty, limiting a country’s ability to manage its environmental policies and resources as it deems fit.
  • Deterrence for Research: Scientists and researchers may be deterred from conducting environmental studies involving manipulation or experimentation due to potential legal repercussions, hampering scientific progress.
  • Effectiveness Questioned: Critics question the effectiveness of criminalizing ecocide, suggesting that existing environmental regulations, when rigorously enforced, may be more practical and efficient.

Present Status of Ecocide Acknowledgment in India

  • International Level: India has neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and has not officially stated its position regarding the proposal to criminalize ecocide at the international level.
  • International Environmental Treaties: However, India has ratified various international environmental treaties and conventions, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
  • National Legislation: India has implemented several national laws and policies to safeguard and conserve the environment, such as the Environment Protection Act 1986, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAMPA).
  • Informal Use: Although the term ‘ecocide’ has been informally mentioned in certain Indian court judgments, it has not been formally incorporated into Indian legislation.
  • Examples:
    • In the case of Chandra CFS and Terminal Operators Pvt. Ltd. v. The Commissioner of Customs and Ors 2015, the Madras High Court observed the continuous and uncontrolled activities leading to ecocide in relation to the removal of valuable timber.
    • The T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union Of India & Ors 1995 case in the Supreme Court highlighted the necessity of shifting from an anthropocentric approach to an ecocentric approach for achieving environmental justice.

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024