A wide range of actions imperil the planet and threaten the future of humanity and other species. This essay notes some examples of crimes and harms damaging to the environment and human and non-human species as well as various forms of response that have called for more effective and appropriate models of justice and law than currently prevail. This leads to a discussion of several suggestions regarding the development and expression of an earth jurisprudence and to the history of a proposal that “ecocide” be recognised internationally as a crime. Analysis of documentary sources traces this idea from debates about the concept of genocide to consideration by United Nations officials as to how crimes against the environment might be defined, and shows how near such a proposal has previously come to acceptance and enactment. The article concludes with an argument for supporting a law of ecocide as the 5th Crime against Peace.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Although the terms pillage, plunder, spoliation and looting are all commonly used in legal discussion with more or less the same meaning, pillage is the only one that features in treaties governing the laws of war [44, p.15].
The authors are grateful to Rob White for this and several other points.
U.N. Commission on Human Rights, 1994, Rapporteur Ksentini, Sub-commission Report.
[29, p.79 – 95]. For further discussion, see Moses .
In fact one out of five acts of cultural genocide did remain in the Convention, this is “(a) forcible transfer of children to another human group”; the excluded other categories being: “(b) forced and systematic exile of individuals representing the culture of a group; (c) prohibition of the use of the national language even in private intercourse; (d) systematic destruction of books printed in the national language or of religious works or prohibition of new publications; (e) systematic destruction of historical or religious monuments or their diversion to alien uses, destruction or dispersion of documents and objects of historical, artistic, or religious value and of objects used in religious worship.” [http://www.preventgenocide.org/law/ convention/drafts/]. Cases of the forcible removal of indigenous children – the ‘stolen generations’ – in Australia and Canada have produced enormous controversy and invoked the notion of cultural genocide but none has produced a prosecution let alone conviction at the international level.
Sub-Commission on The Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Study of the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Prepared by Mr. Nicodème Ruhashyankiko. 4 July 1978. E/CN.4/Sub.2/416.
E/CN.4/Sub.2/SR.658, p. 53.
General Assembly resolution 177 (II) of 21 November 1947.
The Special Rapporteur refers to the following international instruments: the Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof; the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere in Outer Space and Under Water; the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies; and the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques; see A/CN.4/377 and Corr.1, para. 44 and 51, p.94-96.
A/CN.4/377 and Corr.1, para. 46, p.95.
One provision of Art.22 on war crimes covers damage caused to the environment in times of war. “Article 22. Exceptionally serious war crimes: 2. For the purposes of this Code, an exceptionally serious war crime is an exceptionally serious violation of principles and rules of international law applicable in armed conflict consisting of any of the following acts: […] (d) employing methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment; […]”. See: Yearbook of the ILC 1995, Vol.II, Pt.2, p.97.
A/CN.4/448 and Add.1, contained in Yearbook of the ILC 1993, Vol.II, Pt.1, p.66, para.50 (Australia), and p.68, para.30 (Austria)
A/CN.4/448 and Add.1, contained in Yearbook of the ILC 1995, Vol.I, 2386th m., pp. 52; and 2387th m., p. 52–53
Working group was established at the 2404th meeting. See: Vol.I and Vol. II, Pt.2 of the Yearbook of the ILC, 1995.
Yearbook of the ILC, 1996, Vol. I, 2428th meeting, p.5, para.5.
ILC(XLVIII)/DC/CRD.3 (included in Yearbook of the ILC, 1996, Vol. II, Pt. 1).
Yearbook of the ILC, 1996, Vol. I, 2431th meeting, Tuesday, 21 May 1996.
Ibid. Including environmental damage in the context of war crimes: 12 votes in favour to 1, 4 abstentions; in the context of crimes against humanity: 9 votes to 9, 2 abstentions.
Article 8. War crimes:
2. For the purpose of this Statute, “war crimes” means:
(a) Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or property protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention: […]
(b) Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict, within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts: […] (iv) Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause […] widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated; […]
A/CN.4/466, included in the Yearbook of the ILC 1995, Vol.II, Pt.1, p.35
Agnew, R. (2013). The Ordinary Acts that Contribute to Ecocide: A Criminological Analysis. In N. South & A. Brisman (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of green criminology. London: Routledge.
Annan, K. A., & Flavin, C. (2002). State of the world, 2002: a worldwatch institute report on progress toward a sustainable society. London: WW Norton and Company.
Beirne, P., & South, N. (Eds.). (2007). Issues in green criminology. Cullompton: Willan.
Benton, T. (2007). Ecology, community and justice: the meaning of green. In P. Beirne & N. South (Eds.), Issues in green criminology. Cullompton: Willan.
Berat, L. (1993). Defending the right to a healthy environment: towards a crime of geocide in international law. Boston University International Law Journal, 11, 327–348.
Berry, T. (1999). The great work: our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.
Bisschop, L. (2012). Out of the woods: the illegal trade in tropical timber and a European trade hub. Global Crime. doi:10.1080/17440572.2012.701836.
van Boekhout Solinge, T. (2008). Crime, conflicts and ecology in Africa. In R. Sollund (Ed.), Global harms: ecological crime and speciesism. New York: Nova.
van Boekhout Solinge, T., & Kuijpers, K. (2013). The Amazon Rainforest: A Green Criminological Perspective. In N. South & A. Brisman (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of green criminology. London: Routledge.
Braithwaite, J. (2002). Restorative justice and responsive regulation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brisman, A. (2013). Environmental and human rights: land, property and crime. In G. Bruinsma & D. Weisburd (Eds.), Encyclopaedia of criminology and criminal justice. New York: Springer.
Bullard, R. (1994). Dumping in Dixie: race, class and environmental quality. Boulder: Westview Press.
Chamberlain, G. (2012). ‘They’re killing us’: world’s most endangered tribe cries for help. The Observer, 22nd April: 8.
Cullinan, C. (2010). Earth jurisprudence: from colonization to participation. In Worldwatch Institute (Eds.) State of the world, 2010, transforming cultures. www.Worldwatch.org
Cullinan, C. (2011). Wild law: a manifesto for earth justice (2nd ed.). Vermont: Chelsea Green.
De Prez, P. (2000). Excuses, excuses: the ritual trivialisation of environmental prosecutions. Journal of Environmental Law, 12, 65–77.
Docker, J. (2004). Raphael Lemkin’s history of genocide and colonialism. Contribution for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Washington D.C.: Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, 26th Februar.
Docker, J. (2008). Are settler colonies inherently genocidal? Re-reading Lemkin. In A. D. Moses (Ed.), Empire, colony, genocide: conquest, occupation and subaltern resistance in world history. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Eman, K., Meško, G., & Fields, C. (2009). Crimes against the environment: green criminology and research challenges in Slovenia. Journal of Criminal Justice and Security, 11(4), 574–592.
Faber, D. (2009). Capitalising on environmental crime: a case study of the U.S.A. Polluter-industrial complex in the age of globalization. In K. Kangaspunta & I. Marshall (Eds.), Eco-crime and justice. UNICRI: Turin.
Falk, R. A. (1973). Environmental warfare and ecocide - facts, appraisal, and proposals. In T. Marek (Ed.), Bulletin of peace proposals 1973 (Vol. 1, pp. 80–96). Oslo: Universitersforlaget.
Frerot, A. (2011). Water – towards a culture of responsibility. Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press.
Gauger, A., Rabatel-Fernel, M P., Kulbicki, L., Short, D. and Higgins, P. (2012). Ecocide is the Missing 5th Crime against Peace, London: The Ecocide Project, Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London. http://www.sas.ac.uk/hrc/projects/ecocide-project
Gray, M. A. (1996). The international crime of ecocide. California Western International Law Journal, 26, 215–271.
Higgins, P. (2010). Eradicating ecocide: laws and governance to prevent the destruction of our planet. London: Shepheard-Walwyn.
Hulme, K. (2008). Do we need a human right to a healthy environment? Paper presented at Human Rights and the Environment Panel, February 21st, University of Essex, Human Rights Centre 25th Anniversary.
Huisman, W. (2010). Business as usual? corporate involvement in international crimes. The Hague: Eleven International Publishing.
Lemkin, R. (1944). Axis rule in occupied Europe: laws of occupation - analysis of government - proposals for redress (pp. 79–95). Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment.
Lynch, M. (1990). The greening of criminology: a perspective on the 1990s. Critical Criminologist, 2(3–4), 11–12.
Moses, D. (2008). Empire, colony, genocide: keywords and the philosophy of history. In D. Moses (Ed.), Empire, colony, genocide: conquest, occupation, and subaltern resistance in world history (pp. 3–54). Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Moses, D. (2010). Raphael Lemkin, culture, and the concept of genocide. In D. Bloxham & A. D. Moses (Eds.), Oxford handbook of genocide studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Passas, N., & Goodwin, V. (2004). A crime by any other name. In N. Passas & V. Goodwin (Eds.), It’s Legal but it ain’t right: harmful social consequences of legal industries. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press.
Ruggiero, V., & South, N. (Eds.). (2010). Green criminology, special issue of. Critical Criminology, 18(4).
Ruggiero, V., & South, N. (2010). Green criminology and dirty-collar crime. Critical Criminology, 18(4), 251–262.
Savulescu, J. (2012). Master the new loom before life’s tapestry unravels at our hands. Times Higher Education, 19th April, 32–33.
Short, D. (2010). Cultural genocide and indigenous peoples: a sociological approach. The International Journal of Human Rights, 14(6–7), 831–846.
Sollund, R. (Ed.). (2008). Global harms: ecological crime and speciesism. New York: Nova.
South, N. (1998). A green field for criminology?: a proposal for a perspective. Theoretical Criminology, 2(2), 211–233.
South, N. (2010). The ecocidal tendencies of late modernity: trans-national crime, social exclusion, victims and rights. In R. White (Ed.), Global environmental harm: criminological perspectives. Willan: Cullompton.
South, N., & Brisman, A. (2012). Critical green criminology, environmental rights and crimes of exploitation. In S. Winlow & R. Atkinson (Eds.), New directions in crime and deviance. London: Routledge.
South, N., & Brisman, A. (Eds.). (2013). The Routledge International Handbook of Green Criminology. London: Routledge.
South, N., & Wyatt, T. (2011). Comparing illicit trades in wildlife and drugs: an exploratory study. Deviant Behavior, 32(1), 1–24.
Stone, C. (1972). Should trees have standing? Towards legal rights for natural objects. Southern California Law Review, 45. p. 450
Stewart, J. (2011). Corporate war crimes: prosecuting pillage of natural resources. New York: Open Society Foundation.
Tacconi, L. (Ed.). (2007). Illegal logging: Law enforcement, livelihoods and the timber trade. London: Earthscan.
Tomuschat, C. (1996). ‘Crimes Against the Environment’. In: Environmental Policy and Law. 1996. Vol. 26, 6.
Walters, R. (2013). Air crimes and atmospheric justice. In A. Brisman & N. South (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Green Criminology. London: Routledge.
Weisberg, B. (1970). Ecocide in Indochina. San Francisco: Canfield Press.
Westing, A. H. (1974). Prosciption of ecocide. Science and Public Affairs, 1974, 24–27.
White, R. (2008). Crimes against nature: Environmental criminology and ecological justice. Cullompton: Willan.
White, R. (Ed.). (2010). Global environmental harm: criminological perspectives. Cullompton: Willan.
White, R. (2011). Transnational environmental crime: toward an eco-global criminology. New York: Routledge.
World Water Council, http://www.worldwatercouncil.org
Wright, G. (2011). Conceptualising and combating transnational environmental crime. Trends in Organised Crime, 14, 332–346.
About this article
Cite this article
Higgins, P., Short, D. & South, N. Protecting the planet: a proposal for a law of ecocide. Crime Law Soc Change 59, 251–266 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-013-9413-6
- Restorative Justice
- Rome Statute
- Strict Liability
- Environmental Crime
- Special Rapporteur