In international criminal law as well as in European and national criminal law, the term “ecocide” refers to criminal liability for massive damage to or the destruction of ecosystems by human actions. The concept has been debated in international law since the 1970s when the use of the defoliant Agent Orange by the US military in the Vietnam War not only harmed people’s health – severely to fatally – but also massively destroyed flora and fauna. Currently, ecocide is not included as a separate offense in the Rome Statute, the foundational document of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Only in the case of an international armed conflict are such acts that 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” punishable as war crimes under its Article 8 (2) (b) (iv).
In 2021, a panel commissioned by the non-governmental organization Stop Ecocide International formulated the following proposed definition for a stand-alone crime of ecocide for the Rome Statute:
“(…) unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”
To include it in the Rome Statute, a two-thirds majority of the States Parties to the Rome Statute would be necessary. Diplomatic efforts toward this goal are being pursued by a growing group of states, led by the small island nation of Vanuatu. International criminal liability would mean that individuals could be prosecuted and convicted before the ICC under the conditions set forth in the Rome Statute.
The European Parliament recently called for the introduction of an ecocide offense in the context of the revision of European environmental criminal law. Furthermore, ecocide is already a punishable offense in some countries – for example, Vietnam, Ukraine, and Ecuador – based on their national laws.