Amazonian Rainforest

Outlawing ecocide for global peace – why we must all stand with Polly Higgins, the ‘lawyer for the earth’

This post comes to you from An Arts and Ecology Notebook
‘Examples of ascertainable ecocide affecting sizeable territories include the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest, the proposed expansion of the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada and polluted waters in many parts of the world, which account for the death of more people than all forms of violence including war‘ – Polly Higgins, Eradicating Ecocide, 2010, p.63

Polly Higgins and indigenous activist Raven Courtney 2012 working to spread news about ecocide in Canada and North America

Polly Higgins and indigenous activist Raven Courtney earlier this year working to spread news about ecocide in Canada and North America

The above statement is a startling statistic at odds in how we may conventionally view war. Yet acknowledging the enormous and accelerating violence and destruction to humans, non-human species and our sustaining habitats as war is a critical step if we are ever to halt such activities. It is this key concept that drives UK lawyer Polly Higgins in her work to make ‘Ecocide’ legally recognised by the United Nations as ‘5th international Crime against Peace‘. Polly and her organisation are working towards presenting these new laws at the upcoming June 2012 Earth summit and she has recently made an urgent call, particularly to the women of the world, who are often most affected, to understand this concept and to spread it amongst their communities and to bring it to the attention of their political leaders.

Ecocide, as Polly describes in her award winning book ‘Eradicating Ecocide – exposing the corporate and political practices destroying the planet and proposing the laws needed to eradicate ecocide’, is a relatively new term. It was first used to characterise the massive and ongoing environmental devastation that occurred in the Vietnam war with the widespread use of toxic defoliants to destroy local forests. Today it is a term that is growing in agency as the world is beginning to recognise the grave and now imminent global peril that humanity and other species face due to the mostly uncontrolled, unsustainable and ultimately suicidal behaviour of our local and global businesses and corporate industries. Ecocide literally means the killing and destroying of our habitats, and is derived from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘house, dwelling place, habitation, family’ and the suffix ‘cide‘ from the French and Latin words to ‘kill or slay’. For the purposes of international law and building on definitions of ecocide from previous war crimes, Polly defines ecocide as ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished’.

Building on her extensive knowledge of international environmental law, Polly has over a number of years built a very strong, credible case to firstly explain the history and the current situation about why legal compromise, recommended environmental policy and regulation all continue to spectacularly fail in preventing environmental destruction, as seen in the recent Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She likens the need to legally criminalise ecocide to the effects such similar laws that criminalised and led to the abolition of slavery. Polly’s aim is to eradicate ecocide at its roots, outlawing ecocidal activity in all business activity to the point that business is forced to radically change and move in the opposite direction. As she says ‘ we need business skills to be applied elsewhere and very fast..’

Youtube: Polly Higgins organised a successful mock ecocide trial in London in 2011 with leading human rights lawyers

While I’m often pessimistic about environmental actions and politics in general halting what I see as the unstoppable consequences of a society that promotes unlimited economic growth and profit over everything else, I have been encouraged by Polly’s work and the historical and recent examples she presents where such legal changes have made a difference. There are certainly enormous challenges in getting such legal changes adopted and then enforced. However, it is possible and one country, Ecuador, has in 2010 already enshrined these values into its national constitution. Perhaps this is because it is in Ecuador that the largest criminal prosecution against corporate ecocide, against the ‘big oil’ company TEXACO, has succeeded with a $27 billion of damages awarded to 30,000 Amazonian peoples (the 18 year struggle for this landmark case is the basis of the award-winning documentary Crude (2009)).

So if you have a few minutes, please visit Polly’s website, packed with information and suggestions on how to spread the word about ecocide and its need for its to be recognised at every level, locally, nationally and internationally as a crime, not just against the environment but against peace. Do share this article , particularly before the June 2012 United Nations Earth Summit at which Polly will be presenting this groundbreaking work.


What follows are Polly’s 10 reasons why Ecocide is a crime against Peace

1. stop ecocide and we stop the mass destruction of the planet;

2. ecocide is proposed as an international law which applies to all people and all nations;

3. which will rapidly become a national duty of care as well when each country has to put in place parallel laws;

4. governments, corporations, organisations, and any person who has rights over a territory will have an over-riding legally binding obligationto ensure their actions do not give rise to damage, destruction or loss of ecosystems;

5. action can be taken against any human person, not the fictional person (the corporation). As an international crime against peace, no-one escapes liability;

6. we already have the international court structure in place to prosecute ecocide. The International Criminal Court was created in 2002;

7. ecocide creates a strong legal burden of responsibility to ensure prevention;

8. restoration will take precedence over simple payment of fines;

9. the Law of Ecocide will ensure a shift from personal interest to public, environmental and society interests;

10. Peace.

Ecocide sends a powerful global message to the world, not just to those involved in business or during war, to take responsibility for the well being of all life.

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An Arts & Ecology Notebook, by Cathy Fitzgerald, whose work exists as ongoing research and is continually inspired to create short films, photographic documentation, and writings. While she interacts with foresters, scientists, and communities, she aims to create a sense of a personal possibility, responsibility and engagement in her local environment that also connects to global environmental concerns.
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