Multiple countries have already criminalised ecocide; the Netherlands cannot stay behind

Illegal logging, serious pollution and other forms of large-scale destruction of nature belong in international criminal law and perpetrators should be prosecuted, Cedric Ryngaert and Daan van Uhm believe.

Humanity has become a “weapon of mass extinction”. Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres said that at the biodiversity conference in Montreal in 2022. He warned that one million plant and animal species are facing extinction, the biggest number since the end of the dinosaur era. The World Resources Institute calculated that roughly 4.1 million hectares of tropical rainforest was lost in 2022, which is an area approximately the size of the Netherlands. And in the meantime, the IPCC, the scientific climate panel of the UN, writes about the catastrophic consequences if global warming does not stay limited to approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius. What is wrong with global nature management?

Nature has always been considered a state property which is to benefit economic growth, instead of an essential living condition. This anthropocentric and materialistic approach to nature also manifests in most laws. Gradually, this is changing; the dualistic thinking on nature and society is no longer self-evident. People more and more often go to court to compel protection of their living environments. Environmental issues play an increasingly important role in social debates.

Nature always subordinate

In order to prevent that nature always ends up drawing the short straw in these debates, large-scale destruction of nature, usually designated ‘ecocide’, must be criminalised. This concerns activities with large negative environmental impacts, which can diminish the peaceful enjoyment or lives of  large groups of human and non-human inhabitants directly and in a prolonged way. For this, you can think along the lines of mass deforestation, large-scale illegal mining, trade in endangered flora and fauna or dumping polluting substances with large environmental impacts. It should be possible to internationally prosecute whoever commits this.

In Europe, government leaders and the European parliament have adopted a compromise text for a new guideline on the penal protection of the environment, in which more serious punishments will be imposed for environmental violations ‘comparable to ecocide’. Individual countries, including France, have already criminalised ecocide on a national level. The Netherlands cannot stay behind. For this reason, a proposed legislation to criminalise ecocide, which was sent to the Dutch House of Representatives at the initiative of the Partij voor de Dieren in November 2023, therefore deserves to be considered in parliament quickly.

Human interests are usually the guiding principle in the development of laws and regulations. But for this topic, what we call an ecocentric approach seems important here. We must ensure that ecocide law not only concerns actions which are ‘clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic benefits anticipated’, as is formulated in the internationally most well-known definition of ecocide. The danger of such an anthropocentric approach is that the argument can always be made that the destruction of nature has social-economic benefits.

Prosecution of individuals

A strong international ecocide treaty could compel countries to prosecute individuals, corporations and policy makers over behaviours of which they know – or should have known – that these cause serious, wide-spread or long-term environmental damage, whatever the social-economic benefits may be.

The threat of prosecution alone has a deterring effect which should not be underestimated. The corporate world and the government will feel additionally compelled to map negative environmental impacts. Out of fear of prosecution, they will try to prevent economic activities causing major environmental damage. On top of that, criminalisation can stimulate a cultural change and send a strong signal that large-scale destruction of nature is no longer accepted.

In the project ‘Ecocide’, an interdisciplinary group of academics at Utrecht University, including Cedric Ryngaert (a Professor of International Law) and Daan van Uhm (an Associate Professor of Criminology), investigate how the concept of ecocide can contribute to the protection of the environment, with attention for the rights of nature and indigenous peoples. Besides lawyers and criminologists, ecologists, philosophers, geoscientists, literary scientists and psychologists collaborate to interpret the ecological, social-cultural and political implications of ecocide. The goal of the project is to establish an ecocide knowledge hub and to draft policy advisory reports which contribute to ecocide legislation.