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Why We Need A Law On Ecocide

Until we have a law to prosecute those who destroy the planet, corporations will never be called to account for their crimes

by Polly Higgins

Sophie Scholl, a Munich University student, was executed for revealing the truth about the activities of the Nazi authorities; today 20 brave Ratcliffe whistleblowers have been sentenced at Nottingham crown court for plotting to draw attention to the truth of the activities of another German entity. This time, replace the tyranny of the Nazis with the tyranny of the energy giant E.ON.

Scholl and 20 others stood up and took direct non-violent action. Their crime was the dissemination of leaflets highlighting and decrying the tyranny of the Nazi dictatorship. It was a decision to undertake something unlawful – an act that they believed was a necessity – to halt a greater but unnamed crime, a crime that cost many lives. That crime did not, at the time, have a name. But it soon did: genocide.

The Ratcliffe 20 did the same in April 2009. They too were prepared to stand up and take action. Their crime was planning to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar, a coal-powered station that is one of Britain’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. The state was failing to prevent a greater injury from taking place; the loss of life. This time it is not only human life, but all life.

Like Scholl and her fellow activists, the Ratcliffe 20 were motivated to take non-violent direct action. They, along with 124 others, decided to undertake something unlawful: conspiring to close down the offending emitter. It was an act that they believed was a necessity; to halt a greater but unnamed crime, a crime that is already costing many lives.

Their defence was that they were acting to prevent a greater crime, of death and serious injury caused by climate change. We do not currently have a legal crime in place that fits this description but there is one fast looming on the horizon and that crime is ecocide.

Currently there is no law to prosecute those who are destroying the planet. Instead, climate campaigners do not have the support of the judiciary in preventing the corporate ecocide that is daily occurring under our very noses. Ecocide is permitted (as genocide was in Nazi Germany) by the government and, by dint of the global reach of modern-day transnational business, every government in the world. Corporate ecocide has now reached a point where we stand on the brink of collapse of our ecosystems, triggering the death of many millions in the face of human-aggravated cataclysmic tragedies.

Over the passage of time, tyranny revisits. Tyranny is the cruel, unacceptable, or arbitrary use of power that is oblivious to consequence. While the use of coal stations may not be deemed an intentional cruelty, it is certainly an unacceptable use of corporate power. Our governments collude by encouraging excess emissions, contrary to their UN commitment to stabilise “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

Sixty years ago the tyranny was Nazism. Today it is pursuit of profit without moral compass or responsibility. Despite the planned Ratcliffe protests, it is one that the majority of humanity accepts regardless of the known consequences. We look the other way from the daily reports of destruction of our world by those who are in a position of superior responsibility; the master controllers of our fates are those who determine how we live our lives. It is the heads of the top corporations who gamble with the fate of our planet; those who produce and supply our energy are the most culpable of all.

The failure rests with our governments who are unwilling to intervene to make the destruction of our world a crime. Our police are disempowered and our justice system is unable to protect our greater interests when faced with the superior silent right of corporations to cause injury to persons and planet. Those who stand up and speak out are thereby treated as criminals.

Prior to the Ratcliffe trial, the judge ruled: “the defendants must have the opportunity of putting that contention (that the emissions from the power station do pose an immediate threat) before the jury, no doubt backed by expert evidence.” Expert evidence was heard, from James Hansen, the former head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute, on the immediacy of the threat to life caused by escalation of emissions, to MPs who confirmed government inertia. All of which the jury failed to accept. What will it take for that dense sea fog to dissipate and for the truth to be revealed?

Unlike the Ratcliffe 20, Scholl and her co-conspirators were denied the right to defend themselves in their trial. They too were convicted for resorting to unlawful acts, which they believed to be necessary to expose the truth. At the very end of her trial, she spoke out. It is just matter of time, she said, before the true destroyers are put in the dock. The very same can be said today.

About the Writer

Polly Higgins is a barrister, author and international environmental lawyer advocating a different approach to preventing the destruction of our planet.  Instead of our laws protecting the property rights of the few, we can shift to laws that impose responsibilities, duties and obligations for the benefit of the many.

Voted by the Ecologist as one of the “Worlds Top 10 Visionary Thinkers” for her earlier work advancing the Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights, Polly has submitted a second proposal to the United Nations: the Crime of Ecocide.  Ecocide is a 5th Crime Against Peace, yet to be recognised alongside Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression. Polly was nominated “The Planet’s Lawyer” by the 2010 Performance Awards, has been named one of the top “unreasonable people” in the world by the cult US online magazine Planet Green for refusing to accept the norm and hailed by the Guardian as one of their Green Heroes working for the right kind of environmental change.

In April 2010 Polly submitted a legal proposal to the United Nations to create a 5th Crime Against Peace – that crime is the crime of Ecocide.

Polly Higgins’  websites are: ThisIsEcocide ,  TreesHaveRightsToo ,  WiseWomen and TheLazyEnvironmentalist . She can be followed on Facebook via EcocideIsACrime and on Twitter via @PollyHiggins and @ThisIsEcocide


This article was originally published in The Guardian on 5 January 2011 and has been reprinted with the permission of the writer.

Further links you may be interested in:

1. YouTube: What is Ecocide?

Video series by Polly Higgins outling a “Proposal to the United Nations to make Ecocide a crime, by Polly Higgins, barrister and international environmental lawyer: Ecocide is proposed as the 5th Crime Against Peace to stand alongside Genocide in the International Criminal Court. Ecocide is defined as the “damage, destruction to or loss of ecocsystems…”.

Part 1

Watch remaining parts: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 (for the summary)

2.  Eradicating Ecocide: Laws and Governance to Prevent the Destruction of our Planet by Polly Higgins

Eradicating Ecocide highlights the need for enforceable, legally binding mechanisms in national and international law to hold to account perpetrators of long term severe damage to the environment. At this critical juncture in history it is vital that we set global standards of accountability for corporations, in order to put an end to the culture of impunity and double standards that pervade the international legal system. Polly Higgins illustrates how this can be achieved in her invaluable new book.”
BIANCA JAGGER, Founder and Chair of Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, advocate for Crimes Against Present and Future Generations


Read a review of the book on TreeHugger ” The only way are going to truly stop ecocide is to make it a serious crime”

3. Other related links:

TreeHugger: India’s First Environmental Tribunal Opens: ‘Anyone and Everyone Can Bring Cases Before Court’

The Ecologist: COP16 Cancun – Colonialism by the Sea

EWTT: Bolivia Climate Change Conference and The Rights of Mother Earth

Movie : The Corporation and on YouTube

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Posted by on Jan 7 2011. Filed under Climate Change, Green Activism, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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