RUSSIA-UKRAINE CONFLICT: A Catalyst To Making Ecocide The 5th International Crime

Kosha Doshi and Naga Sumalika Rangisetti are both third year law students studying at the Symbiosis Law School, Pune (India)


In the 21st century, genocide will not necessarily take the form of war, or death camps. Most likely it will take the form of ecocide, in which landscapes are devastated as Ecology along with humans become victims and succumb during armed conflicts. The armed conflicts pose a serious threat of irreversible damage, such as exploitation of victim nation resources, disruption of livelihood of people, unsustainable survival means affecting the short- and long-term goals of citizens. The long-lasting damage to the air, soil and water caused by the usage of chemical weapons needs time to heal, rejuvenate and reestablish their original state. Russia’s invasion styled military attack on Ukraine imbibes a critical effect on the nation. Alongside, wars in Ukraine, one of the world’s top industrial countries, with a significantly lower rank in the Environmental Performance Index, aggravate the extensive risks of toxic contamination due to disruption of factories and industries. Such attacks on industrialized nations affect the environment threatening the food security and health of the people.

The snowballing menace of technological and nuclear hazards in the populated nuclear plants region affects not only Ukraine’s ecology but also the European Nations’. The aghast destruction of cities, forests, factories and equipment impacts the economy and also nature due to pollution. Military and armed conflicts have the most severe impact on environmental destruction due to the toxic substances involved and released into the environment. Ukraine comprising 6% of the European landmass and 35% of the biodiversity and 70,000 species of rare flora and fauna is at stake due to the wide amount of usage of armed weapons and the chances of explosion or leakage of nuclear power plants across the nation.  Such an environmental crisis in the nation also affects climate policies and frameworks. In reference to the existing frameworks regarding the protection of the environment in armed conflicts, the International Law Commission’s review on the general principles of law, it outlines the conduct of regulations with suggestions for corporate solutions. The conventions, frameworks, and principles act as a catalyst in strengthening peacekeeping and the prevention of conflicts.

Weak Legal System

The conceptualisation of frameworks for the protection of the environment in armed conflict was on paper in the need of the hour resulting in the creation of a new concept of crime against humanity coined ‘ecocide’. The conceptualisation of ecocide is a collaborative thought of the spike of mass destruction of the environment. Yet there is no proper rigid legal framework protecting the environment in armed conflicts. The first-ever International Convention addressing the environmental issue during conflict and criminalizing such acts is the ‘Convention on the Protection of the Environment through Criminal Law’ in the year 1998. This convention was a result of the adoption of Resolution 1 by the 17th Edition of the Conference of European Ministers of Justice in the year 1990. This convention recognises that criminalizing people for harming the environment would be the last resort while measures taken to prevent any impairment would be the priority of the society, lawmakers and authorities. The draft of the convention lays down all the guidelines and procedures to be followed while raising liability.  With the recent attack of Russia on Ukraine, the scholars, analysts are looking for the inclusion of the definition of ‘Ecocide’ under ‘Stop Ecocide Foundation’ as a global crime in the Rome Statute as ‘any illegal and unjustified act committed with the intention and awareness of the subsequent short/long term consequences are held to be liable under Ecocide’. Russia however has violated the Martens Clause and Protocol 1(Additional Protocol) of the Geneva Convention (1949) framework rules of restricting places from attack by attacking the dams and nuclear plants. The 2020 recommendations and guidelines on Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) were issued in response to the 1994 first guidelines of guiding the Military and Armed Forces for protecting the environment and limiting the damages. Another initiative undertaken by the United Nations International Law Commission on Protection of the Environment in relation to Armed Conflicts is on the same lines and that these documents are also recommended by the United Nations Environment Programme. All these conventions, guidelines and frameworks reveal the extent and liability for the protection of the environment in armed conflicts by analyzing the break-outs and conflicts.

Lacuna In Holding Russia Accountable

Following the occupation of Russia at nuclear sites, like the Chernobyl, an open letter was issued by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association in light of the risks of military operations at vulnerable sites. Simultaneously, the UN Environmental Assembly conducted a meeting with the agenda to discuss the invasion and its threats to the ecosystem resulting from the shelling and toxic waste from the armed conflict. The CEOBS (Conflict and Environment Observatory) flagged Russia’s attack on the nuclear sites demanding criminal accountability for the environmental impact. The  Ukraine Prosecutor General Officer and Security Services termed the act of Russia as an act of ecocide requiring and demanding a criminal investigation. Article 441 of the Ukraine Criminal Code encompasses the crime of ecocide which encompasses mass destruction of flora and fauna, poisoning of water, air and the resources associated with environmental disaster. But the issue persists that with domestic jurisdiction prosecution possibilities become difficult.

Currently, laws at the national level for sustainable development have jurisdiction over the limited territorial area but international law is visioned to protect the world as a whole. Tagging ecocide as an international crime unravels the potential to account for the enlarged loss of biodiversity, serving as a mechanism to compensate for the failed system to hold nations accountable. While the idea of ecocide was introduced by the Swedish PM Olof Palme way back in 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment, no concrete stance has been taken since then by the international community. But the ICC in 2016 clarified its stance on environmental destruction being solely tagged under the umbrella of ‘crimes against humanity.’ The UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Stockholm in June 2022 aims to stress the binding principles and rules for consideration of ecocide as a crime at ICC especially considering the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Principle 24 of the Rio Declaration takes into account environment and development wherein it considers warfare inherently destructive for sustainable development. Aligned with this, ICJ’s Opinion of the Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons places an obligation on states to ensure that activities in the jurisdiction or control do not affect the environment of other states while having special reference in cases of armed conflict. Issue persists with influential states such as the US, France and UK offering resistance to binding obligations. Objection to international humanitarian principles in matters of the environment surrounds the predicted restriction in the context of freedom to use nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the International Law Commission via its PERAC Project [Protection of the Environment in relation to Armed Conflicts] has recently laid forth 28 draft principles encompassing rights associated with this matter such as the effect of war on marine areas. In consonance with the same, ICRC in its updated guidelines has pleaded for associating environmental awareness with military operations.

International accountability for Russia seems limited at the moment. The issue of protecting the environment in times of armed conflict arose with the oil slicks on the waters of the Persian Gulf towards the end of the Gulf War 1990. To date debates surrounding the role of Article 35, Para 3 and 55 of the Additional Protocol I to curb environmental destruction during the armed conflict have not been settled. In theory, Ukraine can choose to investigate based ICC eco-centric war crimes under Article 8 (b)(iv) of the ICC Rome Statute. But in practice, protection becomes difficult as it requires proof of damage to the natural environment as clearly excessive concerning concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated. Proving ‘advantage anticipated’ seems burdensome. While there has been extensive support for the term ‘ecocide’, only Article 8(b)(iv) refers to explicit environmental damage. The Rome Statute does not provide a precise definition as it underscores the difference between particular prohibition and criminal prosecution for damages to the environment. For applicability of war crimes under Article 8 to environmental harm, the Statute contained the crime of aggression. This includes a perspective of severe referring to the intensity of damage caused to the environment independent of its geographical ambit and temporal duration. Further, the term ‘long-term’ is unclear to measure in the context of criminal prosecution. While the Rome Statute attempted to address ecocide by incorporating ecocentric values, it is overall subject to anthropocentric values. There have been several calls to amend the provision by widening the provision to address theoretical and practical shortcomings.

Recommendation and Concluding Remarks

Introduction of ecocide as the fifth international crime could counter future contingencies with environmental damages in armed conflict but Russia would not be held accountable due to prospective application. Lessons can be taken from the success stories of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, ENMOD, Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind, 1992 Agreement on the Application of IHL between Parties to the Conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Previous case studies such as the Vietnam War (means of forest cover and crop damage) indicate the limited ability of affected nations to adequately prosecute the nation-states. Theoretical recommendations in line with the UN’s 2022 agenda to characterize ecocide as an international crime would be a way forward. Supplementing this, practical enforcement recommendations in line with preliminary investigation, the inclusion of environmental protection mechanisms, awarding or reparation, compensation for harms, symbolic measures and environmental restoration projects would be feasible. The attack by Russia should be taken as an alarming step in formulating and revising the international guidelines and frameworks to connect environmental damages to crimes against humanity and inhumane acts.

Using Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Climate Policy Development

By Katie Donnellan

(Katie Donnellan is a research assistant in the Department of Law at Maynooth University, Ireland.)

The convergence of World Indigenous Peoples Day and the release of the IPCC Report on climate change on August 9th, 2021 highlighted the convergence of the issues of climate change and the empowerment of Indigenous Peoples (IPs).  In November 2021, the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26 summit, presented the opportunity to operationalize the empowerment of IPs in the battle against climate change, and Indigenous voices were heard both inside and outside of the summit, influencing negotiations and protesting on the streets. Selected Indigenous stakeholders who were party to negotiations enjoyed ‘Friends of COP’ status, a nod to the role of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in combatting climate change.  However, in practice, IPs were disproportionately blocked from attending Glasgow, with obstacles ranging from lack of access to Covid-19 vaccines, unpredictable travel rules and visa and accreditation issues. The deal reached at the conclusion of the summit bitterly disappointed Indigenous activists, who denounced it as a ‘death sentence’ for Indigenous communities, largely due to the incentivisation of off-setting, rather than cutting, emissions, which is linked to issues ranging from environmental destruction to murder. As encapsulated by the Indigenous activist Andrea Xieu, ‘The problem is not only the blah, blah, blah of politicians, but the bang, bang, bang of greenwashing.’  

The outcome of COP26 is a symptom of the broader issue of the exclusion of IPs from international climate policy discourse and the extant underlying trust deficit between IPs and the UN community. Invoking IKS to address the climate catastrophe is timely, according to former UNGA President, Maria Fernanda Espinosa: ‘We either think about the next elections or the next generations’. Often living in high risk environments, IPs are the first and most severely impacted by the negative consequences of climate change. They comprise just 5% of the global population yet protect 80% of global biodiversity. The value of their contribution to climate decision-making is evident, as their ‘resilience, creativity and resolve… [has] done so much not only for IPs but for the world, and will continue to bring the world to a better place.’ (Former Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya).

IKS constitutethe understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings’ which ‘complement broader-scale scientific research with local precision and nuance.’ Their well-documented value to developing culturally-appropriate climate change solutions is manifold, from environmental observation to developing mitigation and adaptation technologies. This is exemplified in the Cameroonian forests, where the Indigenous Baka peoples are making their voices heard through Indigenous-led technologies which ‘connect indigenous knowledge and values with decision-makers’ and rebut the negative perceptions of IKS which underpin traditional State practices of ‘conservation from above.’ Participative technology is empowering Baka peoples to lead collaborative mapping projects, under which solutions are led and informed community concerns. The benefits of including IPs in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and in climate action specifically, are two-fold: situated on the front-lines of climate impacts, IPs provide a measure for the Agenda’s achievement, whilst IKS can also substantively contribute to climate change solutions. It is therefore vital that IPs are included in international decision-making to combat climate change.

The ILO Convention 169 affords IPs rights to political agency and participation. Its poor ratification rate frustrates this instrument’s potential to be a widespread, legally binding source of Indigenous inclusion in policy-making, however, it can still provide a template for informing the creation of inclusive, collaborative decision-making processes. The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol make no reference to the role of IKS, however, the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1993 recognises the role of ‘traditional knowledge, innovations and practices’ in conservation and sustainability of biological diversity, and a 2012 Report explores how to promote their participation in the UN. The UNDRIP recognises the right of IPs to political participation and autonomy, while their role in climate decision-making was explicitly recognised in the preamble of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and implicitly in the Sustainable Development Agenda, which prioritises the fight against climate change and building inclusive institutions. UNGA Resolution 71/321 and its follow-up report encapsulate the political momentum gained for enhancing the IPs participation in the UN. 

Ms Espinosa identifies three deficits which hinder the transformation of this political will for inclusion of IPs into concrete action to create collaborative policy-making processes and to promote knowledge-sharing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous forums. The first deficit is the implementation deficit, referred to by Mr Anaya as the need to ‘operationalise the rights and principles agreed upon’ in various international treaties and to mobilise the political will to not only vindicate specific IPs rights but to also include IPs in confronting issues like climate change, through the top-down financial and political empowerment of local-led, grass-roots initiatives. 

Bridging the second deficit of inclusion and participation requires the transformation of current UN political structures so as to become more inclusive of all of society. As it stands, IP agency within the UN system is largely confined to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), an insular forum with little outward engagement with other branches of the UN political system. IP voices need to be included across the UN political framework and the participatory forums which comprise it need to become more engaged with one another in order to reap the benefits of diverse viewpoints. The UN itself recognises that the most effective solutions for combatting climate change are those emanating from the populations who are affected by climate change, such as Indigenous populations, and developed through decision-making processes that are accountable to and inclusive of those populations. Such solutions are enriched by localised knowledge, sustainable subsistence and community-based innovation. In this spirit, IKS incorporates the Indigenous principle of ‘two-eyed seeing’ which ‘refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.’ UNESCO acknowledges the benefits of granting political representation, agency and autonomy to IPs, at both the local and international levels, as it is their lived experiences and generational wisdom that provides the most effective solutions for fighting and adapting to climate change. Indeed, the motto of Ms Espinosa’s UNGA presidency was ‘making the UN relevant for allmaking the multilateral work to improve quality of life, rights and standards at the local level.’ Political participation is central to not only empowering the agency of IPs but also to enriching policy-development with IKS. 

Thirdly, the trust deficit encapsulates the perception by marginalised people, including IPs, that UN institutions are not delivering for them. Although UN bodies have recognised the importance and contributions of IPs to climate change discourse, as outlined above, it appears this has not translated into concrete action to include them.  Ms Espinosa advocates for a resolution through a reconnection of scales, by which she says the UN must empower IPs to be architects of their own destinies and enable local decision-making to inform UN policy through the instalment of effective built-in listening machinery to register the voices of IPs worldwide. This could be bolstered by more streamlined, effective and accessible Treaty Body processes, under which IPs could assert their rights within the UN system. She further highlights that the enhancement of IPs’ status within the UN needs to go further than the dedicated Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, which, as an exclusively Indigenous forum consisting of inter-Indigenous dialogue concerning primarily Indigenous issues and confined to an Indigenous – as opposed to a UN – agenda, fails to foster the integration of Indigenous views into mainstream policy-making, and which lacks outside engagement from other branches of the UN system.

Efforts are underway to bridge these deficits, with UNESCO’s inclusive, transparent consultation process for the development of its Recommendation on Open Science, seeks to recognise and include IKS in formal science and educational systems, based on principles of inclusiveness and respect for diversity. The report issued at the conclusion of this consultation process explicitly references IKS in the context of sustainable natural resource management and advocates for positive action and incentives to establish ‘respectful links between indigenous and scientific knowledge systems.’ Under the 2030 Agenda, UNESCO’s policy on Indigenous engagement is to ensure IP priorities are heard though various strategies: promoting inclusive collaboration between IPs, scientists and policy-makers, through dialogue, awareness-raising and capacity building between them; supporting the development of community-based observation systems and solutions which draw upon Indigenous knowledge, innovations and practices for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change; engaging with agencies across the UN system, including the specific Indigenous mechanisms within the UN system – namely, the above-mentioned UNFPII, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – and; advancing resource mobilisation efforts to finance the reform. 

Back in August, IPs called for a new Social Contract, inclusive of all citizens of the world and truly reflective of ‘We The Peoples’. The outcome of COP26 highlights the UN system’s failure to heed this call. The above-mentioned trust deficits must be bridged and IP voices more actively included in decision-making if we have a chance of surmounting perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation, climate change.

None of the views presented in any article posted on the Jus Cogens Blog are necessarily the official positions or views taken by the Jus Cogens Podcast and Blog. All views presented in the article are those of the author alone.

How the Inclusion of Ecocide among the Rome Statute’s Crimes Could Counter Neo-Colonial Criticisms

By Christine Carpenter

[Christine Carpenter is a lawyer and researcher in international law interested in Human Rights Law, International Criminal Law, and Counterterrorism Policy. She holds a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a master’s in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge]


The recent proposal to include ecocide as an international crime contained in the Rome Statute—alongside crimes against humanity, war crimes, acts of aggression, and genocide—has sparked conversation celebrating both this new means of using international legal tools to confront global warning and the validation the prosecution of such crimes would bring to those harmed by environmental atrocities (see here, here, and here for samples of this discussion). In addition to these important commendations, adopting ecocide among the Rome Statute’s crimes poses an intriguing counterweight to one of the International Criminal Court’s greatest criticisms. 

The ICC has been denounced as a neo-colonial institution nearly since its founding. Scholars, international lawyers, heads of state, and directors of international organizations have all chimed in, adding to this criticism. As evidence, many cite (1) the ICC’s virtually exclusive convictions of African nationals, (2) the disproportionate number of investigations into situations on the African continent, and (3) the access issue implicit in the unpaid employment structure of many ICC positions—which bar highly qualified candidates from less privileged backgrounds from participating in the institution. The weight of these critiques is heavy because, in many instances, they are true. The ICC has consciously worked to counter this reproach in recent years, through opening investigations into the conduct of Western Countries; and in the last few years, more discussion has been focused on labor compensation in international courts. In spite of these efforts, however, the Court has not been able to escape the justifiably large shadow cast by the accusation of serving colonial ends—or at least, of upholding remnants of the colonial infrastructure. 

The criminalization of ecocide—which would target the kind of environmental destruction and pollution often committed by developed countries in developing nations—holds the potential to reverse the trend behind this criticism, and avail the ICC to new methods for forming solid jurisdictional hooks in states that have historically evaded its grasp. Furthermore, the international nature of the ICC means it is uniquely poised to prosecute bad acts by transnational corporations (TNCs) that have likewise evaded responsibility in both their countries of origin and the states in which they operate.

Is the ICC a Neo-Colonial Institution?

The best answer I have found for this question is: not intentionally, but still quite possibly. At the very least—the ICC has validly been perceived as neo-colonial in nature by those who feel uniquely pursued by its efforts. The African Union has claimed the ICC disproportionately targets African states. This claim is bolstered by the fact that, while the crimes contained in the Rome Statute are being committed around the world, the ICC’s focus—ranging from open investigations to completed convictions—has been on the African Continent. Earning the ICC the insult of the “International Caucasian Court,” this criticism of neo-colonial bias has led multiple states (see here, here, and here) to leave the Rome Statute.

In response to the criticism that the numbers reflect a neo-colonial bias, others are quick to emphasize that this is not the product of deliberate targeting, but rather one of convenience. Namely, African states lack the economic and political prowess of many states guilty of international crimes that have avoided prosecution—namely, the U.S., Russia, and China. 

The ICC has attempted to confront this criticism—expanding its investigations into other continents and into subjects previously reserved for hegemonic oversight and proxy-conflicts. However, critics are quick to point out the limited bandwidth of these efforts, citing as an example the unanimous decision by the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber II that an investigation into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the CIA and US military officials in Afghanistan would be against “interests of justice.”

Arguably one of the greatest risks of neo-colonial flavor in its prosecution decisions is influenced by the same colonial history at the backbone of the ICC’s parent-body—the UN Security Council. The relationship between the ICC and the UNSC is explicitly contained in Rome Statute Article 13(b), which grants the UNSC referral power over ICC investigations through its Chapter VII authority. Due to the veto power afforded to each permanent member of the UNSC, several flagrant violations of the Rome Statute have gone un-referred and—lacking any other jurisdictional hook—uninvestigated. 

Thus, one can reasonably conclude that, while the ICC does not have the intent to exercise its authority in a neo-colonial manner, in effect, this may still be what has happened.   

Notable Positives to Including Ecocide among the Rome Statute’s Crimes

The proposed addition of ecocide to our canon of international crimes brings with it a number of positives. At the international level, it prompts a cohesion around a global concern for the future of our planet. As we’ve seen in the past, this widespread attention can develop into international conventions that outlaw certain condemned behaviors—such as torture, uses of certain weapons, and certain forms of discrimination. The codification in international treaty law has the ability to ascend into custom. It furthermore can provide a clear and accessible template, through which states may adopt domestic legislation criminalizing the same conduct. To the extent the law and social change form a cyclical relationship, the more drastic environmental harms are discussed in such extreme and criminal terms, the more public opinion may shift to viewing it as such.  All of these benefits are significant, and more importantly, they begin to manifest the moment ecocide becomes criminalized—they are not necessarily tied to the performance of the crime in the ICC’s docket.

This being said, it is also important to address concerns with the proposed language of the ecocide definition—namely the actus reus and mens rea elements of the crime vis-à-vis the principle of legality and principle of sovereignty concerns. As to the former, nullum crimen sine lege undoubtedly dictates that ecocide cannot be enforced against perpetrators ex post, and thus it may take time before the incorporation of ecocide into the Rome Statute has the chance to be utilized by the OTP. However, the other benefits to ecocide’s inclusion—such as those discussed above—are not affected by this principle, and face no delay in taking effect. As to the latter, Maud Sarlieve notes, the vagueness of the mens rea requirement, and a lack of instruction as to how it ought to be applied where the conduct of corporate entities is at issue, make the application of the crime a bit dubious.  While this concern represents a significant deviation from the ICC’s mode of operating up to this point, it could (distantly, optimistically) present a benefit to how the mens rea in the definition is construed. 

Countering the Neo-Colonial Criticism: New Jurisdictional Hooks and Better Fishing Equipment

The Court has jurisdiction over both crimes committed on the territory of a state party and jurisdiction over a person who has the nationality of any state party (Art. 15). About half of the twenty largest energy companies (by gross revenue) are headquartered in states that are party to the Rome Statute—namely Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, and The Netherlands. These are also states who, outwardly, are highly supportive of environmental action, so although the ICC’s amendment system means the new crime of ecocide would only apply to consenting state parties, it is still likely some of these states will formally accept the newest international crime. This would expose a number of major actors committing ecocide around the world ICC jurisdiction. 

A challenge to extradition, present where state officials are concerned, is more easily overcome in the case of TNCs. While it is fairly easy for officials in non-party-countries that are under ICC investigation to simply not travel to states where they may be extradited, this is not the case for members of a TNC. It cannot simply discontinue operation in any country that submits to ICC jurisdiction, especially as many TNCs’ business models are tied to natural resources and other assets connected to the territory in which they are operating. 

Furthermore, this novel jurisdictional strategy enabled by ecocides’ criminalization may serve as an incentive for many states that have long felt targeted, or at least underserved, by the ICC to remain signatories to the Rome Statute.  Contrary to underserving these states, membership to the ICC could include the benefit of offering states a new and sound mechanism for opposing environmental abuse committed by TNCs on their territory that many of these countries have historically lacked the sufficient legal systems to prosecute.  

Addressing the Hurdles to the ICC’s Use of Ecocide to Hold Corporate Actors Accountable  

A challenge to effectively using the criminalization of ecocide under the Rome Statute to achieve these ends, which cannot be understated, is that the provisions of the Rome Statute exclude corporate criminal responsibility. Thus, exercising ICC jurisdiction over corporations themselves, to investigate and prosecute their culpability in international crimes as juridical persons, is not made easier by the addition of ecocide to the Rome Statute. While the lowered mens rea requirements would make it easier to attribute criminal responsibility to TNCs in spite of their frequently attenuated operation in foreign states, the jurisdictional hook over the corporation itself remains elusive. Furthermore, overcoming this is unlikely, as it would require a series of complicated amendments to the Rome Statute, and ones likely to face heavy resistance.

However, the corporations’ officers may still be held liable, where they are nationals of state parties or they are operating on the territory of state parties. There is precedent for this in the prosecution of Joshua Arap Sang, a former corporate executive from Nairobi, Kenya, who was investigated and subsequently tried at the ICC as an “indirect co-perpetrator three counts of crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, in light of substantial lobbying efforts and other financial cross-pollination between these major corporate actors and politicians, the expansive nature of TNC’s actions works to a jurisdictional advantage, casting a very wide net for individuals who might bear responsibility for ecocide committed by a TNC. Thus, ecocide could serve as a key tool for circumventing jurisdictional hurdles that have produced neocolonial outcomes by enhancing the ability of the ICC to pursue justice for environmental and economic harms.


In summary, the potential inclusion of ecocide in the Rome Statute poses a lot of potential good for both the individual communities that bear the brunt of gross environmental mistreatment and for the future of our planet. While the specific proposed definition of ecocide included is vague and difficult to operationalize, as many have discussed, it also holds substantial promise. One of these benefits is the potential use of the ecocide offense to combat the neo-colonial flavor of ICC investigations and prosecutions, and using international criminal law to target pervasive bad actors in states that may not have the domestic tools available to hold such actors accountable for harms against their citizens and the environment. This use would not be without complication—and further challenges presented by corporate immunity in the Rome Statute cannot be ignored here. But, this provision offers some creative jurisdictional hooks for officers and other actors complicit in the ecocide committed by TNCs, which is an enormous positive of ecocide’s inclusion in the Rome Statute that warrants recognition. In our ongoing struggle to both improve the health of our planet and defend the rights of marginalized populations, this effort is a tentative but mighty win.   

Values of an Autonomous Internationally Recognized Right to a Healthy Environment

By Zhonghua Du

[Zhonghua Du is currently completing Magister Juris (Master in Law) at the University of Oxford,
and her research interests include international environmental law, international law of the sea,
international criminal law and international humanitarian law. LinkedIn:]


In a far-reaching Advisory Opinion in 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirmed the “autonomous” nature of the right to a healthy environment and stated that such a right “protects the components of the environment, … as legal interests in themselves.With the proliferation of environmental lawsuits around the world, it is worth asking whether the existing international environmental and human rights law are sufficient to address the issue of environment and human rights protection, and what value an autonomous internationally recognized right to a healthy environment (“AIRRtHE”) adds to the existing framework. This essay presumes that current international law (lex lata) doesn’t recognize an autonomous right to a healthy environment. Therefore, the argument that asserts the customary nature of AIRRtHE is dismissed, and this essay will address the AIRRtHE as a matter of lex ferenda. This essay will argue, that an AIRRtHE can bridge the gap between positive international law and environmental aspirations, but it falls short of addressing the drawbacks of anthropocentricism, regional bias, and the integrity of human rights system. 

  1. The definition of an AIRRtHE

The definition of AIRRtHE is three-fold as understood by this essay. Firstly, by “autonomous”, AIRRtHE embodies the normative value of environmental rights in and of itself, instead of “greening” the existing human rights through invoking the relationship between the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights and the protection from environmental harm (Knox, 2020, p. 84). Secondly, by “recognized”, AIRRtHE refers to a “formally recognized entitlement to a particular quality of environment” that “states and their citizens could claim through a source of international law that would hold states to account in the international regulatory domain vis-à-vis one another and in relation to their citizens” (Kotzé, 2018, p. 137). And thirdly, by “international”, AIRRtHE posits itself as a universal right, differing from the right to a healthy environment under regional human rights agreements and domestic constitutions. 

  1. The existing international environmental and human rights law framework and the added values of an AIRRtHE

The right to a healthy environment has been recognized by human rights law from a rather early age, explicitly or implicitly. As a pioneer in this field, the African Charter recognized it as an autonomous right as early as 1981: “all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development”. Following this, the San Salvador Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights, the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration all provide for such a right. Although the European Convention on Human Rights doesn’t include a separate article on the right to a healthy environment, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) has managed to develop a jurisprudence to protect environmental rights indirectly through the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life (Kotzé and Daly, 2019, p. 1055).

Even at their best, these instruments are insufficient for environmental protection. Firstly, no global human rights instrument has explicitly endorsed the right to a healthy environment. For the regional human rights instruments, only the African Charter makes the environmental right reviewable by an international body, for the Arab Charter, the ASEAN Declaration and the San Salvador Protocol, the right to a healthy environment is not subject to oversight mechanisms. Secondly, the substance of the environmental right, as interpreted by different treaty bodies, varies. For example, although ECHR recognized the possibility to address environmental concerns in connection with fundamental human rights, in Kyrtatos v. Greece, it dismissed the argument that Article 8 or any other Articles of the Convention were designed to protect the environment, and stated that even if they were, the standard of proof for environmental harm to be detrimental to the rights of individuals is relatively high. On the contrary, different from the environmental implications of other rights, the Advisory Opinion OC-23/17 recognized the right to a healthy environment as an autonomous right. Thirdly, the effectiveness of the international processes is highly questionable. Even for the high-profile case of SERAC v. Nigeria, in which the African Commission identified widespread oil pollution as a violation of the right to live in a healthy environment, little change has happened in the actual environmental conditions endured by communities in oil-producing regions following the ruling (Boyd, 2018, p. 24).

For international environmental law, the overall picture is similar to human rights law. By framing environmental right in “pure anthropocentric developmental and domestic-focused terms”, the Rio Declaration is considered to be a retrogressive step compared to the Stockholm Declaration (Kotzé, 2018, p. 139). No legally binding instrument recognizes the relationship between human rights and climate change concerns, and even if the Paris Agreement does contain an explicit reference, its preambular appearance marks the political skepticism behind it (Rajamani, 2018, p. 244). As Kotzé (2018) correctly pointed out, the “imprecisely formulated international right to a healthy environment only has the status of soft law”, which can only provide non-binding guidance to states.

It is against this context that quite a few international environmental lawyers enthusiastically commended AIRRtHE’s contributions to both international environmental law and human rights law. Such contributions can be summarized in the following three dimensions. 

First, morally, an AIRRtHE will elevate the relative importance of environmental concerns compared with the utilitarian concerns of short-term economic growth, which can energize the advocation for the right (Rodríguez-Garavito, 2018, p. 159); it can also reverse the colonial narrative of human rights law because much of the diffusion of the right to a healthy environment was led by countries in the Global South (Knox, 2020, p. 92). Secondly, normatively, an AIRRtHE can overcome the intrinsic defects of international environmental law and human rights law. International environmental law always places its primary focus on transboundary harm and traditionally overlooks environmental harm within the borders, while human rights law is just the opposite, focuses primarily on internal obligations instead of extraterritorial ones (Knox, 2020, p. 89). In this respect, an AIRRtHE can fill the conceptual gap of the two dogmatics. Thirdly, practically, an AIRRtHE, by its universal bindingness, could bring up the possibility of a new effective international compliance and enforcement machinery and provide a more uniform and standardized minimum level of protective obligations of states, a “safety net” (Boyd, 2018, p. 31). 

  1. The lingering paradox of an AIRRtHE

However, an AIRRtHE is never a panacea for all environmental and human rights issues. It is subject to a number of criticisms from both the legal and political perspectives. 

First, the argument that because of the ambiguity of a generic AIRRtHE, it cannot give rise to operationalized rights and obligations is relatively easy to rebut. Many fundamental rights are also codified in a rather imprecise and generic manner, and it is precisely the indeterminacy of the language that allows flexible interpretations so as to accommodate new challenges. For example, the broadly defined nature of the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the ECtHR has been utilized by the ECHR under a couple of circumstances to respond to the development in society, including the protection of professional activities against arbitrary interference, prevention of environmental pollution, and protection of personal data. Moreover, the fact that the environmental right has been adjudicated by a crowd of national courts and have positive effects around the world proves that the right to a healthy environment would not be too vague to be implemented.

Secondly, a more trenchant criticism comes from the theory of “Anthropocene”, which exposes the supremacy of human beings as the hegemony over other beings and nature and urges us to look at the human-environment relationship from an eco-centric perspective instead of an anthropocentric perspective (Kotzé, 2014, p. 135). The approach of an AIRRtHE, on the contrary, reinforces anthropocentricism. By seeing the environment as an entitlement of a human being, it still places human at the centre of environmental governance, and it only protects the environment when the negative effects have been such that the human enjoyment of rights has been interfered with (Kotzé and Daly, 2019, p. 1068). It may be argued that the more integrated human rights and environmental protection is, the less important is the distinction between the anthropocentric and the eco-centric approach, however, it is undeniable that up until now, the dominant approach of human rights bodies still emphasizes the adverse effect of environmental pollution on humans, not a general protection of the environment as such; and even if the Court gives some credit to the normative value of autonomous environmental rights “in themselves”, it is hardly operationalizable.

Thirdly, another sharp criticism is the regionally biased effect of the AIRRtHE. The observation made by Handl (1992) that human right to a healthy environment is by its very nature a context-dependent right is still tenable almost thirty years later. The narrative of environmental rights is still largely dominated by the racially and monetarily dominating power in the world, while the disproportionally affected, poor and non-white groups by global environmental deterioration are still striving for social-economic and political empowerment. Subjecting an inherently relative environmental right to a generalized AIRRtHE standard will potentially turn the standard into a completely empty shell, and it may subject the already disadvantaged groups to further discrimination (Handl, 1992, p. 131). 

Last but not least, there’s also anxiety that the introduction of an AIRRtHE will have an “atomizing effect”, making the international human rights regime filled with individual litigation and claims even more fragmented (Rodríguez-Garavito, 2018, p. 165). It remains a problem how to reconcile the potentially differentiated standards of the right to a healthy environment in the myriad litigations and jurisprudence at the domestic level even after the enaction of an AIRRtHE.


Environmental protection requires global awareness and systematic behavioural changes, and it cannot be accomplished in an action. An AIRRtHE, if to be embodied in a universally binding instrument, has the potential of bridging the gaps of the existing corpus of international environmental and human rights law, but it leaves many issues unsolved, including the right of the “Mother Earth”, the issue of environmental justice, and the fragmentation of international human rights law. In an era when we are facing “daunting and enduring obstacles in a geopolitical context” even in the negotiation of soft-law instruments (Rodríguez-Garavito, 2018, p. 166), it is highly questionable whether the blueprint of an AIRRtHE will be realized in the near future. 

Brazil’s Climate Actions Can Become a Tipping Point for the Enforcement of International Environmental Law

By Guilherme Pratti

[Guilherme Pratti is a PhD student in Law at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Italy, and a member of its Center for Inter-legality Research. His research project deals with the legal rationality of climate change. Twitter: @iugittarp]


The current Brazilian Federal Government has been dismantling the structure for the protection of the environment that has been put together in the past twenty years, by freezing national funds, firing the personnel responsible for the surveillance of protected forest areas and by speaking in favor of (and therefore incentivizing) the reduction of indigenous land and protected areas. In this context, different lawsuits have been filed before the Federal Supreme Court, aiming at i) impeding further dismantling of national structures; ii) restoring federal efforts to preserve the environment and iii) recognizing the conditioning of Brazil’s environmental public policies to its commitments on the matter at the global level.

I have so far identified eight major lawsuits (by the end of the post I offer a charter with all cases), all filed by a group of center-left and left wing political parties before the Federal Supreme Court, having as its object the actions and omissions of the Federal Government regarding its duty to protect the environment, mitigate climate change and preserve national structures responsive for environmental protection in general. 

Two of these lawsuits are, for theoretical reasons, the ones that interest us the most from the perspective of international law. They are the ADPF nº 708, filed on June 30th 2020 and the ADPF nº 760, filed on November 12th 2020. On a side note, it is important to mention that two other noteworthy cases have been filed before the federal courts of the States of Amazonas and Paraná (North and South regions respectively), which means that, symbolically speaking, there are climate related lawsuits pending in three out of five national regions so far.

The intertwining of spheres

Back to the Federal Supreme Court cases: ADPF translates, literally, to “arguing for the transgression of a fundamental precept and it is the procedural instrument to be invoked, when in absence of a specific type of action, to avoid and/or repair the violation of fundamental rights provisions of the Brazilian Constitution (art. 102, §1º; Law nº 9.882/99). Both ADPFs seek to repair the damages already done and to avoid further damages by the Federal Government, whom did not abide by the existing normative framework on matters of environmental protection from deforestation and mitigation of the effects of climate change.

The ADPF nº 708, seeks to declare as unconstitutional the Government’s omission to release the national “Climate Fund”, which has so far strangled activities aimed at mitigating the harms of climate change. The Federal Government is withholding said funds and therefore all activities dependent on its budget have been either stopped or diminished to a minimum due to lack of money. This ADPF is a joint action of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), Worker’s Party (PT) and Sustainable Network Party (REDE).

The ADPF nº 760, in turn, seeks a writ to command the Government to fulfill its duty to apply the “Action Plan for Prevention and Controlling of Amazon Deforestation” (PPCDAm), for it has not been employed in the past two years, thereby blocking all national measures aimed at preventing deforestation of the Amazon forest and thus contributing to the considerable rise of the forest’s destruction. The filing of said ADPF was signed by the four signatories of APDF 708 plus the Green Party (PV) and the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB).

Both lawsuits go beyond the invoking of the relevant national normative framework and argue, in a nutshell, that when it comes to deforestation prevention and climate change mitigation, Brazil has a commitment not only to itself, under Article 225 of the Constitution, but also with (and to) the international sphere. In order to do so, said ADPFs invoke i) the Paris Agreement; ii) the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals; iii) the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” of 1992; iv) the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and; v) the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

These instruments base the political parties’ arguments that the current Federal Government’s actions and omissions are not only blatantly harmful to the environment immediately situated on the Brazilian territory but also deleterious beyond national borders for they accelerate climate change. As a consequence, it is argued, the mentioned actions and omissions are not only precluded by domestic law but also by the commitments Brazil agreed upon in the international sphere. That is, the Federal Government’s (in)actions violate both national and international normative frameworks. This brings up the composite character of the normativity of the cases at hand, shedding light at the intertwinement between legal spheres.

The conditioning of domestic legality

Said “composite character” (Klabbers & Palombella, 2019, p. 2) images the entanglement of the national and international legal spheres, which, in the present cases, is being argued by the plaintiffs through, on the one hand, the weaving of the preservation of the forest and the mitigating of climate change as sine qua non conditions to guarantee the fundamental rights (for example, of the next generation of children, indigenous people and the ecologically balanced environment) under the Brazilian Constitution, and on the other, the fulfilment of the country’s international commitments and the conditioning that these – i.e. the commitments – play within the domestic sphere. 

That is, the conditioning of the domestic legality (the normative production and interpretation and the public policies pursued) by the extra-State legality, for the latter serves in various ways as a parameter for the establishing (and concretization) of the former. A way to understand the relationship between the legal orders at stake, all the while fully considering the above mentioned composite character of the law (without disregard for one of the levels of legality at stake), can be pursued through the “inter-legality perspective”, which considers “the overlapping among regimes and orders as a consequence of interconnectedness” (Palombella, 2019, p. 368). 

Said perspective is the effort to understand the evermore complex character of the law in the twenty-first century, characterized by “the unavoidable interconnectedness of legalities” (Palombella, 2019, p. 366). And since the interconnectedness at stake is not only normative but also factual, for international environmental laws and agreements state not only legal rules but also scientific facts on the current health state of the Earth, the inter-legality approach can play a decisive role in the ADPFs at issue. 

Taking the perspective of the ADPFs at hand, one can note that they seek the preservation and implementation of the already existing domestic framework regarding the protection of the amazon forest and of the Climate Fund. And to do so, as above mentioned, they base their arguments not only on the coherence of said framework with the Constitution but also on its consistency to the legality stemming from the international sphere (for instance, the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change). This integration of the normativity of one sphere onto another (Taekema, 2019, pp. 74-75), through inter-legality’s lenses, is useful to the adjudication of the cases at stake for it purports for a much needed synergy between differently-sourced norms – what has been defined by Hogic and Ibrahim as “positive inter-legality” (2021, p. 17 passim).

This being so because through said lenses, the solution for ADPFs 708 and 760 can “account for the plurality of legal normativities actually interwoven in the case at hand” (Klabbers & Palombella, 2019, p. 16), thus putting forward a robust reasoning capable of cherishing domestic law while making treasure of its relation to the international commitments Brazil agreed upon. And vice-versa. In a nutshell: the inter-legality perspective allows one to “shift toward the construction of law from the angle of the case” (Klabbers & Palombella, 2019, p. 2), all the while fully considering the entanglement of norms. 

Since both the national and international frameworks at stake clearly point at the same direction (that is, the preserving of the amazon forest and the evermore present need to mitigate climate change’s effects) and already purport for synergy between legal spheres, the inter-legality approach can be fruitful to put forward a strong precedent that states not only the intertwinement of said spheres but their accordance when it comes to environmental protection. (Recently on this blog Anmol Gulecha argued somewhat on the same direction I am now, though from a different theoretical standpoint)

A tipping point in the making?

Back to the ADPFs. So far, there has not been any definitive ruling in any of the Federal Supreme Court cases. Only minor procedural decisions, preliminary injunctions and the conduction of public hearings (on ADPFs nº 708) were released. On the latter, when determining the realization of the public hearing, Justice Barroso highlighted the importance of the case at hand by mentioning two rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Advisory Opinion OC-23/17 and Indigenous Communities of the Lhaka Honhat Association v. Argentina) and by somewhat reckoning the need to take into account international environmental law, which may indicate an openness of the Brazilian Supreme Court to further recognize the overlapping spheres in play.  

It is important to take into account that the cases brought before the Federal Supreme Court will be the ones to set the tone for the future environmental and climate change lawsuits in the decade that has just begun. Depending on their outcomes and on the legal reasoning they put forward, the two mentioned cases may become a tipping point for the interpreting of domestic environmental provisions, for the enforcement of international environmental law in Brazil and for shedding light on their relation to the fundamental rights of the Constitution. In any case the much awaited rulings will represent a firm stand on the country’s (in)actions regarding the protection of the amazon forest and climate-change-related efforts. If the ADPFs’ ruling do not rise to the occasion, the tipping point we might be seeing in the near future will be the amazon forest’s point of no return.

Overview of Lawsuits


ADPF 592

The annulment of the procedures that have practically extinguished civil penalties and administrative fines for the deforestation of protected areas, created through presidential decree (nº 9.760/19).

ADO 54

The declaration of an unconstitutional omission (for inactivity) on the part of the President and the Minister of the Environment regarding the amazon forest’s protection, with the consequent injunction to obligate them to act within the existing legal framework.

ADPF 623

Restoring the public and civil society’s participation on the National Environmental Council (CONAMA), through the declaration of unconstitutionality of the presidential decree (nº 9.806/19) that excluded them from it.

ADO 59

The declaration of an unconstitutional omission by the Federal Government for not releasing the “Amazon Fund” budget, since 2019 (therefore impeding activities in benefit of the forest and the environment), with the consequent release of said funds.

ADPF 708

The declaration of an unconstitutional omission by the Federal Government for not releasing the “Climate Fund” budget, since 2019 (therefore impeding all activities to mitigate the effects of climate change), with the consequent release of said funds, so the country can meet its commitments on the legalized global space regarding climate change.

ADPF 747

The declaration of unconstitutionality of the resolution nº 500/20 of the National Environmental Council (CONAMA), which has greatly dropped environmental protection standards on “permanently protected areas” throughout the country. 

ADPF 755

The restoring of the environmental organs’ sanctioning powers, on matters of environmental crimes and administrative rules’ violations, which have been paralyzed by presidential decree (nº 9.760/19).

ADPF 760

The application of the PPCDAm, in order to achieve the national goals of deforestation prevention planned for 2021 and the fulfilment of the climate goals assumed in the international sphere.

‘Royal Dutch Shell’ as a Landmark Case in International Environmental Law (An Editorial)

By Layal Alghoozi and Emma Schulte

Over the last few months we ran a series on international environmental law. This series has now ended and we would like to extend our warmest gratitude to all the authors involved. 

As a reminder to our readers, 

  • The series kicked off with a fantastic piece by Moisés Montiel, who argued that, based on the ICJ’s case-law, environmental protection is an international obligation (almost) completely applicable to armed conflicts. 
  • In the following post, Anmol Gulecha guided us through the contributions of domestic courts in the field of international climate change law. 
  • The effects of corporations were examined next, in the excellent critique of TNCs in Latin America, by Lydia Kriki
  • We also had Manoëlle Koninckx argue for a pragmatic approach to ecocide, and made the case for its inclusion in the ICC’s core crimes.
  • Staying on the topic of ecocide, Anh Nguyen journeyed us through the fact that Agent Orange was the first designated instance of this, and in her subsequent post also examined the contemporary effects of Agent Orange by examining the French Court’s dismissal of the lawsuit against Agent Orange manufacturers.
  • Next, Melina Lima, Marina Carvalho, and Catarina Baddini examined the possible path the IACHR can take in tackling environmental issues, by taking inspiration from the ECtHR.
  • Lastly, the erga omnes character of climate change litigation was analysed by Aaryyan Aathreya.

Our theme on international environmental law could not have come at a more defining time for the environmentally disheartened community. Last week, following a federal court ruling in Australia finding a duty of care to protect young people from climate change, the District Court of the Hague in the case of Milieudefensie v Royal Dutch Shell held the major oil and gas-producing company Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) liable for its contribution to climate change, reaffirming the relevance of international human rights in what is becoming an era of rights-based claims against the adverse effects of climate change. This decision reinforces the landmark Urgenda case by unequivocally attaching responsibility to private companies to reduce their Co2 emissions, finding RDS’ activity to be unlawful while compelling it to reduce its emissions based on the Paris Agreement and international human rights law.

The case was mounted as a public interest class action suit by Milieudefensie and 17,379 other individuals as well as six NGOs. The Shell group, a subsidiary body of Royal Dutch Shell was found to emit Co2 at an alarming rate, and as a result of its business activity therefore contributed to climate change and global warming in the Netherlands. Its activities were found to threaten Dutch residents due to the onset impact of climate change, including heat waves and heat stress, drought, floods, food and water insecurity in the Netherlands (para 2.3.7-2.3.9).

The Court ultimately found an obligation on RDS to reduce Co2 emissions of its Shell group by 45% by the end of 2030 through the latter’s corporate policy (para 4.1.4). In its most unequivocal deliberation on Shell’s activity, the Court found that there was no dispute over the degree of global Co2 emissions of Shell group contributing to global warming and climate change (para 4.4.5) and found that RDS’ policy constitutes ‘an imminent violation of RDS’ reduction obligation’ (para 4.5.3).

Although the basis of the judgment predominantly rests on Dutch tort law and an unwritten standard of care emanating from Book 6 Section 162 of the Dutch Civil Code, the Court found that RDS owed a duty to reduce its Co2 activity based on an interpretation of international human rights obligations afforded to the Dutch residents under the right to life (Article 2) and family life (Article 8) as stipulated by the ECHR and ICCPR. This very reasoning follows the emergence of rights-based climate claims like the Norwegian case People v the Arctic, where the claimants argued that Norway’s decision to grant licensing to an oil company is incompatible with the right to life and right to family life. However, just like in the Dutch case before us, the court did not find a sufficient nexus between the direct harm posed by Norway’s decision to grant licensing and the ECHR rights affected as RDS was not found directly responsible for implicating these human rights. However, the role of human rights was considered and was relied on for interpreting the standard of care required by RDS (para 4.4.9). The Court reaffirmed the relevance of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by confirming the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights in their business activities.

Notably, the Paris Agreement was likewise relied on to interpret the unwritten standard of care owed by RDS, relegating the Agreement to a ‘universally endorsed and accepted standard’ to limit global warming below 2ºC, preferably to 1.5 ºC compared to pre-industrial levels (4.4.27). It is this consensus that informed the obligation owed by RDS to reduce its activity/emissions, despite the Paris Agreement being non-binding on RDS nor signatory states for that matter. Indeed, the Court based the requirement to reduce emissions by 45% on the IPCC reports informing the Paris Agreement, noting that states alone cannot achieve the goals mandated under the Paris Agreement.

While the Court did not directly attribute human rights obligations to RDS, apply the UN Guiding Principles or the Paris Agreement as hard law, this case nevertheless represents a major step towards attributing responsibility for climate change and global warming, a great win for the environmentally disheartened community.

The positive changes in attitude regarding the approach of courts to environmental protection, whether domestic or international, has been a recurring theme throughout the entirety of our international environmental law series, and definitely a good note upon which to conclude. We would hereby like to once again thank the authors involved and encourage our readers to check out their contributions. 

The Erga Omnes Character of Climate Change Mitigation: a New Dimension to the Doctrine of Necessity?

By Aaryyan Aathreya

Aaryyan Aathreya is a second-year law student from School of Law, SASTRA University India. He is passionate about Public International Law and International Dispute Settlement.


Climate change is unequivocally one of the most challenging issues that the international community has been mandated to deal with. International Environmental Law (‘IEL’) is faced with a diabolical paradox insofar as mitigating the adverse effects of climate change is concerned. 

On the one hand, there is judicial ambivalence regarding the legal character of norms that underlie climate change mitigation obligations under relevant international instruments. For instance, the International Court of Justice (‘ICJ’) has characterized the precautionary principle as an “approach” rather than a principle of IEL, in the Pulp Mills and Construction of a Road cases. In the case concerning the Gabcikavo-Nagymaros Project, the ICJ had regarded sustainable development as an “objective” as opposed to a principle. 

On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of decisions and resolutions adopted by the Conference of Parties (‘COP’) of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (‘MEA’) that require state parties to reduce the negative impact of climate change mitigation activities— albeit their legal character is normative at best. In accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, developed state parties are required to take the lead in combating climate change and developing state parties are obligated to contribute only in accordance with their respective capabilities and common but differentiated responsibilities. However, with the enactment of the Paris Agreement, the gap between developing and developed state parties has reduced. Several developing countries have submitted and continue to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (‘NDCs’), in accordance with their obligations under Article 4 of the Paris Agreement.

 However, in light of the judicial ambivalence regarding principles of IEL and the several COP decisions under MEAs, how should countries characterize climate change mitigation obligations as a norm of IEL and thereby successfully resolve the conflict between obligations under climate change treaties and other MEAs? 


Apart from the UNFCCC, its Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, other key MEAs whose decision-making bodies have inter alia dealt with climate change include, but are not limited to, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and Wild Animals (CMS) and the Convention on the Conservation of Bats in Europe (EUROBATS)

From as early as 2008, the COP to the CBD had adopted decisions to warn state parties of the potential negative impacts of climate change mitigation activities. In its decision IX/16, the COP had urged state parties to increase the positive and minimise the negative impacts of climate change mitigation activities. This has been successively reaffirmed using stronger language by the COP of the CBD in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2018

The Secretariat to the CMS has adopted resolutions 7.5, 11.27 and 12.21 that call upon state parties to minimize negative effects of climate change mitigation measures because they allegedly have the most immediate negative impact on migratory species. In a similar vein, the COP of the EUROBATS, in resolution 8.7, has also urged state parties to adopt mitigation measures whenever activities are undertaken by state parties to mitigate climate change. There is also growing scientific evidence regarding the potentially harmful impact of mitigation activities on migratory species and the biodiversity as a whole. 

Despite the precarious stances adopted by decision-making bodies of these MEAs, the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states— “mitigation involves some level of co-benefits and risks due to adverse side effects but these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change.” According to Conclusion 12 of the International law Commission’s Conclusions on the Creation and Identification of Customary International Law, resolutions adopted by intergovernmental organizations or conferences do not in themselves constitute customary international law— they may indicate towards the creation of customary international law in the future. Therefore, given the proliferation of decisions and resolutions adopted under the auspices of various MEAs that call upon state parties to minimize the negative impact of mitigation activities, there may be potential disputes regarding the specificities of such requirements in the future. 


Theoretically, there exists an ambiguity with respect to the legal character of erga omnes obligations and its enforcement before international adjudicatory bodies. Scholars,, such as Fitzmaurice, such as Fitzmaurice, have argued that the legal character of international obligations pertaining to climate change are not traditionally bilateral in character but have to be placed within the paradigm of obligations erga omnes. In para 31 of the judgement in the Barcelona Traction case, the ICJ had distinguished between obligations owed vis-à-vis another state and obligations owed to the international community as a whole. It is the latter set of obligations that are regarded as obligations erga omnes. Contrary to the claim that it is quixotical to attribute responsibility for ambiguous obligations, it has been extensively suggested by scholars and organisations, that there is growing evidence that the duty to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change is erga omnes in character. 

The phraseology of Article 2 of the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement, which prescribe the objective of both the agreements, indicate that the obligations under them are owed to the international community as a whole. Furthermore, the IPCC 5th Assessment Report elaborately details the consequences of delaying additional mitigation measures to 2030, including the costs that it would entail for all states— financially and environmentally. 

Although climate change mitigation was not mentioned as an example of an erga omnes obligation by the ICJ when it rendered its Barcelona Traction judgement, it would, in all likelihood, be characterized as an erga omnes obligation since all states have a legal interest in the protection of the environment. If international adjudicatory bodies were to accept this characterization, it would no longer require them to determine the question of the prevalence of one MEA over another and would rather place climate change mitigation on an independent and higher pedestal under IEL. 


Although the doctrine of necessity under international law has been regarded as a virtual subterfuge, it is contributory to, and not subversive of international law, to the extent that it adequately compliments climate change mitigation measures. Customary international law and Article 25 of the ARSIWA preclude wrongfulness when there is a grave and imminent peril against an essential interest of a state, provided that it does not impair the rights of any state and the measure adopted by the state is the only means of doing so.

 According to the ICJ in para 54 of the Gabcikavo-Nagymaros Project judgement,, a “peril” appearing in the long term might be “imminent” as soon as it is established, at the relevant point in time, however far off it might be, if it is not thereby any less certain and inevitable. Since dangerous levels of anthropogenic emissions are very likely to have adverse effects on the environment and climate change is an incumbent concern, albeit its consequences may drastically appear only in the long term, it is a grave and imminent peril.

 In para 53 of its Gabcikavo-Nagymaros Project judgement, the ICJ held that the environment constitutes an essential interest of a state. However, by recognizing climate change mitigation obligations as obligations erga omnes, adjudicatory bodies and states could go one step further to argue and adjudge that mitigation activities not only protect the essential interest of a state, but that of the international community. 

With several means to mitigate climate change, the onus would be on each state to demonstrate how a particular activity is the only means available for the state pursuing the activity. If a state can successfully establish a causal link between the principle of sustainable development and the activity being pursued, it would be a strong defense in its favour under international law.

Finally, rather than impairing a state’s rights under various MEAs, climate change mitigation activities protect the rights of other states due to its erga omnes character. Consequently, wrongfulness may be precluded, if adjudicatory bodies are satisfied with such a characterization based on the facts and circumstances of each case. 


Climate change as a concern of International law has existed ever since the 1990s with the enactment of the UNFCCC Agreement. However, there has never been a dispute before the ICJ solely concerning climate change mitigation activities. Given the uncertain status of several norms of International Environmental Law in general, and norms that underlie climate change mitigation in particular, recognizing the erga omnes character of climate change mitigation activities would provide a new dimension to a general defence (the doctrine of necessity) under International law that has, until recently, only been cautiously explored. 

Environmental Rights as Human Rights: The Current Destruction of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest and the Jurisdiction of the IACHR

By Melina Lima, Marina Carvalho, and Catarina Baddini

Melina Lima has a bachelor degree in Law and a PhD in International Relations. She is currently an International Law Professor at IBMEC in Brazil and she leads a research group on International Law and the Amazon. Marina Carvalho and Catarina Baddini are Law undergraduate students and a researchers at International Law and the Amazon research group.

See also their previous post on the Jus Cogens Blog here.


There is no novelty in the fact that the Amazon rainforest coverage has long been decreasing, as this territory has been under attack since the beginning of the European colonization. Nevertheless, the complete lack of concern for the environment of the current Brazilian administration is taking the devastation to unprecedented levels and studies calculate that the forest could soon reach an irreversible tipping point of becoming a savannah. This tragic prospect provides quite reasonable grounds for developing the discussions on whether environmental rights are human rights. To this end, this text aims at analyzing the precedents of both European and Inter American Courts of Human Rights to understand if the current devastation of the Brazilian Amazon could alone – without considering indigenous rights – become a case before the Inter American Human Rights System.  

Even though the ECtHR would not have jurisdiction over a case involving the Brazilian Amazon, international precedents can and should always be taken into consideration, since they function as an indicative of the development of the international law and its many subjects. As ruled by Article 38 (d) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) about the sources of international law, judicial decisions are a subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law. Moreover, environmental issues have been frequently assessed in the European Court’s decisions, which could serve as a guide and inspiration for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) if a case regarding the Amazon is filed. 

Environmental rights as human rights in the European Court of Human Rights 

Just like most – if not all – of the international human rights norms that constitute the foundation of the International Human Rights Regime, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does not enshrine any explicit right to a healthy and/or preserved environment. Notwithstanding this fact, the subject is not new to the European Court of Human Rights and the precedents on environmental issues amount to approximately 300, including topics such as pollution, dumping of toxic waste and natural disasters, amongst others. Since the environment is not mentioned in the ECHR, the Court’s judgments that addressed environmental issues were based on all sorts of provisions, such as the right to life, protection of property and the right to respect for private and family life. 

Given that it is impossible to mention all the cases, we shall present two that might relate to situations occurring now in the Amazon. The case Dubetska and other v. Ukraine concerned the operation of a coal mine and the health impacts for those who lived nearby. In the Brazilian Amazon, legal and illegal mining has always been an issue and it has gotten much worse during the current administration, as the government is explicitly in favor of promoting mining even if it leads to increasing deforestation. Apart from a law project that allows mining activities in indigenous demarked lands, non-indigenous populations are at risk as well. In the Amazon region, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is ‘responsible for an estimated 71 per cent of all mercury emissions, totaling more than 200 metric tons of emissions each year’, which includes the contamination of air, water and soil. The World Health Organization has classified mercury as one of the ten most dangerous chemical substances to public health. Therefore, it is clear that the health of much of the Amazonian population is in jeopardy. 

Another case that could be somehow related to the Amazon situation is Duarte Agostinho and others v. Portugal and 32 other states. Despite the fact that there is no ruling yet, it involves an environmental issue of utmost importance contemporarily, which is greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The applicants read the ECHR’s articles in the light of the Paris Agreement (2015) and the case has brought innovations in many ways. Apart from being the first one to address climate change, the claimants presented an extraterritorial jurisdiction argument, as the environmental harm caused has a transboundary nature. Moreover, in addition from provisions commonly used, such as the right to life, the ECtHR also invoked the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), which is unusual in climate change cases. Some elements of this groundbreaking case could serve as precedent to a hypothetical similar case concerning the Amazon. 

The Brazilian Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and it should play a vital role in curbing global warming. However, it has lost 34% more of its forest in 2019 than in the year before, according to INPE. The deforestation alone is one major element that causes greenhouse gas emissions, but the fact that industrial-scale cattle ranching is one of the main reasons for the deforestation of the Amazon aggravates the emissions even more, as cows release methane into the atmosphere, which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The damage that people from the Amazon region are suffering is evident, such as the increase in the number of respiratory diseases, but the harm is already probably affecting other regions of Brazil and possibly other countries too, as natural disasters such as droughts and desertification in places thousands of miles away from the Amazon, like São Paulo, have been happening. Therefore, the Duarte Agostinho case relates in some aspects to the current situation in the Amazon, as there is clearly a climate change issue to be solved and the American Convention on Human Rights could be read in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement as well. The extraterritorial jurisdiction may also apply, for potential victims are not necessarily located where greenhouse gas emissions originate, but elsewhere in Brazil or in other countries of the continent whose citizens might be entitled to press charges against Brazil in the American System.    

Environmental rights as human rights in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights 

The American Convention on Human Rights (1969), also known as Pact of San Jose, is another example of human rights law that ignored environmental issues. Nevertheless, in 1999 the Additional Protocol of San Salvador entered into force in the Inter-American System and it represented a step forward concerning environmental rights, as it’s Article 11 provides that (1) every person has the right to live in a healthy environment and that (2) the state parties will promote the protection, preservation and the improvement of the environment. In spite of this explicit provision that is legally binding for 16 ratifying states, including Brazil, its violation cannot be questioned through the Individual Petition System of the IACHR. According to Article 19 of the Protocol, only rights related to education and unions can be pleaded using the aforementioned system. The rest of the rights, including the environmental one, can only be demanded when they are connected to other rights in the Pact of San Jose. 

Addressing the precedents of the IACHR on environmental issues, they are not as numerous or as diverse as those from the European Human Rights system, amounting to less than 10 cases. In addition from being less developed, the approach of the environment topic diverges considerably when we compare the Inter-American and European Human Rights Courts. Whilst the European system has had cases involving all types of violations of the ECHR, the Inter-American Court analyses environmental issues mostly in cases concerning indigenous rights violations, which many analysts consider to be an oblique or transversal path to address environmental issues.     

Among the cases, two of them are especially worth mentioning for the innovations they have brought comparatively with the others. The case Comunidade La Oroya v. Peru, despite the fact it has not been ruled on by the IACHR, is considered a milestone. This is not only because it was the first case to be admitted by the Human Rights Commission that specifically mentioned an environmental degradation, but also because it was the first one that did not relate to indigenous communities. The case concerned the pollution caused by a metallurgical company in a Peruvian city and the petitioners claimed that the rights to life, humane treatment, right to health, among others were violated by the private company, but were attributable to state omissions, especially the noncompliance with environmental and health regulations. It is interesting to note that much of the current devastation in the Brazilian Amazon involves private businesses, air pollution and is largely due to state omission.  

The other case is Comunidades Indígenas Miembros de La Asociación Lhaka Honhat (Nuestra Tierra) v. Argentina. Although it concerned an indigenous community, it is relevant because it was the first contentious case that the IACHR directly addressed the right to a healthy environment, condemning Argentina. The Court ruled that Article 26 of the Pact (progressive development) had been violated. Notwithstanding the fact that Article 26 does not mention the environment, the Court understood that the rights to a healthy environment, adequate feeding, water and cultural identity were implicitly comprised in it, which was an unprecedented interpretation. Since Article 26 can be applied indistinctly to any person whose country is under the jurisdiction of the IACHR, it could serve as precedent in a hypothetical case involving the Brazilian Amazon.  

Apart from the decisions aforementioned, there is an Advisory Opinion (OC-23/17) of the IACHR from 2017 that is rather relevant for the development of the topic. Colombia required the Court to determine how the Pact of San Jose would be applied in relation to other environmental conventions that aim at protecting specific regions. In the Opinion, it was made clear that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental right and that States have several obligations when it comes to ensuring that their actions do not put in jeopardy these rights. According to the IACHR, ‘This Opinion constitutes one of the first opportunities that the Court has had to refer extensively to the State obligations arising from the need to protect the environment under the American Convention’

The contemporary attacks against the Amazon and the IACHR’s jurisdiction

Brazil has ratified the Pact of San Jose in 1992 and has recognized the compulsory jurisdiction of the IACHR in 1998. Therefore, individual petitions about the Amazon rainforest against Brazil have potential to be admitted by the Commission, which is the institution that ultimately takes the cases to the Court. The hypothetical cases would surely need to fulfill other formal requirements as well, such as proving an unjustifiable delay of the Brazilian judicial system or the exhaustion of domestic remedies, but the moot point to consider is the merits, especially the possibility of trying an environment case in spite of the lack of provisions in the Inter-American Human Rights laws. Although the environment topic is still quite underdeveloped in the Inter-American System, the international precedents as a whole clearly show that interpreting environmental rights as human rights is a growing trend. The Advisory Opinion (OC-23/17) also reveals this tendency.  Therefore, considering the merits of a hypothetical complaint, one must notice that the Brazilian Amazon rainforest is in a dire situation and the world’s context of global warming makes the devastation an even more urgent matter. No one questions that environmental issues tend to affect more indigenous populations than non-native ones. Nonetheless, it is also unquestionable that a healthy environment is vital for every human being, regardless of ethnicity. It is, thus, about time that environmental rights are seen as human rights and that the IACHR addresses such cases directly, without having to take the oblique path it usually follows. And this new perspective should not mean that native populations would no longer be entitled to discuss environment matters in their cases; it simply means that the IACHR would be able to try environment cases that are not related to indigenous. We might be witnessing the first steps of a long journey in which environmental rights and human rights will merge into a single area of international law and, if nothing changes in the Brazilian Amazon, a case concerning this region could set a sad, yet historical, judicial precedent that will help consolidate this integration.  

Agent Orange As The First Designated “Ecocide”: Revisiting The Roots of The Movement To Make Environmental Destruction an International Crime

By Anh Nguyen

Anh Nguyen is a law graduate of the University of Vienna and trainee in international dispute resolution at Knoetzl Haugeneder Netal, currently completing her judicial clerkship in the Vienna Circuit. She tweets at @mikanguyen27.

On the 25th January, 2021 a French court commenced hearings for a lawsuit filed by Ms. Tran To Nga, a French national of Vietnamese descent, against more than 20 firms, amongst them Monsanto and Dow Chemicals, complicit in the production of Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide used by the US military in Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1971.

Ms. Tran’s lawsuit casts light upon the continuing devastating effects of environmental warfare on Vietnam’s ecosystem and population and it is out of the protests against the use of Agent Orange and “rainbow” herbicides that the “ecocide” movement was born. This term was coined in 1970 for a proposal of an international agreement to ban the “wilful and permanent destruction” of the environment by Arthur Galston, a biology professor, who identified the defoliant effects of chemicals later developed into Agent Orange. Three years later international law professor Richard Falk  proposed an Ecocide Convention to criminalise acts committed “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a human ecosystem both in peace and wartime”.

As with the four “core crimes” under the Rome Statute, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression, the criminal dimension of acts constituting ecocide emerged from the ravages of war. Revisiting the roots of ecocide in the legal discourse on environmental warfare employing Agent Orange will enlighten contemporary efforts to establish ecocide as an international crime.

According to the ILC’s definition, environmental destruction must be “widespread, long-term and severe” to constitute ecocide. During wartimes destruction is considered “widespread” if it “encompasses an area on the scale of several hundred kilometres,” “long-lasting” if it “lasts for a period of months, or approximately a season,” and “severe” if it “involves serious or significant disruption or harm to human life, natural and economic resources or other assets.” Measured against this definition Operation Ranch Hand would have constituted an act of ecocide. The widespread damage is seen in the estimated 76,000 m3  of herbicides and defoliants, the equivalent of 30 Olympic size swimming pools, sprayed over 22,000 km2 of forest and crops in South Vietnam to deprive the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops of cover and sustenance. Among the present day Vietnamese population, as many as 4.8 million people suffer illnesses or have been left disabled from exposure to Agent Orange. Health problems ranging from leukaemia, Hodgkin’s, Parkinson’s disease, many forms of cancer to inheritable birth deformities, attest to the long-lasting and severe effects of Agent Orange.

Rather than environmental destruction as a form of warfare, our contemporary “peacetime” understanding of potential ecocidal acts is informed by acts of exploitation of the environment for resources, over the course of which the environment is destroyed. As a matter of actus reus, it seems intuitive that destruction and exploitation be considered alternative modi operandi for ecocide. However, Prof. Galston, who coined the term ecocide, and international law scholars considered ecocide an act of war, and as such would not encompass environmental exploitation through resource extraction. In Prof. Falk’s proposed Ecocide Convention only the forcible removal of human beings from their habitation “to expedite the pursuit of military or industrial objectives” was included as a non-military modus operandi of ecocide. 

Between 1984-1986 the ILC considered the inclusion of environmental crime as an international crime under Art 26 of the ILC Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind, the preparatory work for the ICC Draft Statute. Ultimately references to environmental destruction adopted in the Rome Statue only remained within the narrow confines of war crimes under Article 8(2)(b)(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.”

In 2016 the Office of the ICC Prosecutor published a Policy Paper on Case Selection and Prioritization, pledging to investigate crimes under the Rome Statute resulting in three kinds of grave environmental impacts: destruction of the environment, illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land. Although it may seem like the OTP’s pledge considerably widens the possibility to bring charges in respect to environmental crimes, unless ecocide becomes a stand-alone crime under the Rome Statute, acts of grave environmental destruction can only be investigated, if they prima facie constitute admissible crimes under the Rome Statute (see Art 53(1)(a) Rome Statute). The fulfilment of the OTP’s pledge is constrained by the ICC’s jurisdiction, which only extends to the four “core crimes” under the Rome Statute. 

Drawing from the developments elaborated upon above ecocide could be advanced as:

(1) Ecocide is the wilful destruction of the environment, the exploitation of natural resources or the dispossession of land, causing widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment in whole or in part, whereby such acts violate international or national law, or cause damage incommensurate with the concrete and legitimate economic public policy objective intended.

(2) Complicity to ecocide is the perpetration or facilitation of illegal activities, which directly enable the acts as proscribed in paragraph 1.

The actus reus is modelled upon the three modi operandi enumerated in the OTP’s Policy Paper. Regarding mens rea (“wilful destruction”), it remains open if the characteristic “double intent”, a prerequisite for genocide, should be also required: the intent to commit the underlying act damaging the environment and the ulterior aim of destroying it. The underlying mental element of ecocide distinguishes itself from that of genocide in that neither a political vendetta against nor a dehumanising “othering” of the environment exists, thus genocidal “double intent” cannot be adopted to the letter for ecocide. When establishing mens rea behind destruction through a “scorched earth” strategy, as seen in the environmental warfare of Agent Orange, the intent of the underlying act and ulterior motive “to destroy” the environment seemingly converge. During peacetime, however, acts such as oil drilling, fracking, deep sea mining, mineral extraction or mass deforestation, causing the environmental hazards within the realm of ecocide, are not conceived as a criminal, but rather industrial enterprises. Rather than any specific or “original” intent to destroy, utter recklessness or lack of concern for the inevitable destruction of the environment in favour of profits drive potential acts of ecocide perpetrated by extractive industries.

Efforts to criminalise ecocide should consequently be irrespective of a presumed or arguable “legality” of the underlying industrial enterprise. Thus, remodelling the “exceeding military advantage anticipated” requirement in Art 8(2)(b)(iv) Rome Statute sanctioning grave environmental destruction as a war crime, egregious destruction of the environment by extractive industries incommensurate with any legitimate public policies or economic rationale should be punishable. Furthermore, it is an open secret that these industries operate with governmental legal blessing through lobbied permits and licences or outright regulatory capture. Therefore, complicity to ecocide should also be considered to sanction extractive industries’ or other actors’ involvement in illegal activities, especially the corruption of legislators, public officials and agencies, which directly enable ecocidal exploitation of the environment. 

Finally, making ecocide an international crime paves the way to establish individual criminal responsibility of corporate executives as natural and corporations as legal persons. For international criminal law scholars this means testing the ICTY’s doctrines of joint criminal enterprise and functional perpetration and command responsibility from a military context to corporate units and executives. Turning to state responsibility, a counterpart international obligation of states should exist for the prevention and punishment of ecocide, as in the Genocide Convention, compelling states to adopt national legislation against ecocide (e.g. several countries, the first amongst them Vietnam, adopted the wording of Art 26 ILC Draft Code) as well as guardrails to halt extractive industrial practices, which overtime snowball into ecocidal destruction of the environment.

While Ms. Tran’s lawsuit centres around establishing the direct relationship between Agent Orange and the diseases suffered by Vietnamese civilians exposed to it, a determination of the widespread, severe and long-term effects of Agent Orange on the environment by French courts would set an invaluable precedent for the ecocide movement, for which – serendipitously –  Ms. Tran’s legal counsel, Valérie Cabanes, is campaigning. In a similar American lawsuit brought by Agent Orange victims against Dow Chemicals US courts minimised Agent Orange as “not […] designed for targeting human populations”, as such was “only secondarily, and not intentionally harmful to humans”. Assuming this argument is remotely palatable, the fact remains that the deployment of Agent Orange, if only to “primarily” defoliate forests and crops, would have already constituted an act of ecocide. Ms. Tran’s lawsuit is a searing reminder that ultimately the victim of the unspeakable harm inflicted by ecocide is not some mystical Mother Nature, but us, her human population. We only have to search out for the images of Agent Orange victims to apprehend the inherent criminal potential of ecocide and thus the imperative to make it the fifth core crime under the Rome Statute.

Crimes against Humanity: A pragmatic approach to widespread or systematic environmental destruction

By Manoëlle Koninckx

Manoëlle Koninckx, Master of Laws, graduated from the University of Antwerpen having as main subject of interest International Criminal Law, Human Rights and Environmental Challenges. 

The environmental situation on Earth is extremely alarming. In this turmoil, a clear consensus has emerged as to the fact that action must be taken internationally to alleviate human’s destructive frenzy; the question however remains as to the means required. While it has been largely argued in literature that a new crime ‘ecocide’ should be added to the list of International Criminal Law (ICL)’s core crimes, in this post, I take the stand that international instability and the time required to amend an instrument like the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court (ICC) renders such approach inefficient and unfitted to the environmental emergency. Rather, relying on the umbrella provision of Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute, I argue that, even if limited to some extent, a more pragmatic solution may be found in the prosecution before the ICC of attacks on humans, directly perpetrated by means of harms to their environment.

  1. How does the Crimes Against Humanity provision of the Rome Statute provide protection against Environmental destruction? 

Until now, Crimes Against Humanity (CAH) provisions find application in contexts of state repression or predation by armed groups. Environmental harm, on the other hand, is only explicitly prohibited under ICL in war contexts under Article 8 of the Rome Statute. This post nonetheless suggests a contemporary application of the Rome Statute provisions on CAH is possible based on a teleological interpretation of CAH’s definition.

Such interpretation finds its roots in the publication of the 2016 Office of the ICC Prosecutor Policy Paper on Case Selection and Prioritization, which insisted on giving particular attention to the ‘means employed to execute the crime (…) [focusing inter alia on] crimes committed by means of, or resulting in, the destruction of the environment or of protected objects (…) illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land’. Since the publication of this document, the interpretation of CAH as encompassing crimes against the environment was rendered foreseeable

Still, not any environmental harm may be interpreted as a CAH. It should fulfill the conditions required by Article 7 of the ICC Statute; hence 1. Be a prohibited act enlisted in the Statute; 2. Constitute an attack against a civilian population; 3. Be widespread or systematic; 4. Derive from a state or organizational policy; and 5. Be done with intent. 

Prohibited act:  Article 7(1) of the ICC Statute requires the commission of one of the acts it enlists. In this regard, the category of ‘other inhumane acts’ (Article 7(1)(k)) retains all our attention.  This umbrella provision creates an openness to the concept of CAH. As such, it acknowledges that no explicit provision can ever rival the imagination of criminals and opens the floor for environmental destruction as a means to perpetrate CAH. The destruction should be inherently grave as being the source of ‘great suffering, or serious injury to body or mental or physical health’ of the victims (Article 7 (1)(k)) and be of a ‘character similar to any other act’ referred to in Article 7(1)(a-j) of the Statute. Authors such as Amissi Melchiade Manirabona have in this matter argued that toxic waste poisoning could in some cases qualify as a CAH when causing a significant amount of direct harm.

Attack against a civilian population:  Established jurisprudence shows that the term ‘attack’ should be distinguished from the context of an armed conflict and is not limited to the use of armed force. Rather, it encompasses ‘any mistreatment of the civilian population’ (ICTY, Kunarac case, para. 86) or any ‘campaign or operation carried out against the civilian population’ (ICC, Bemba case, para. 149). Accordingly, attacks are conceptualized broadly by the ICC. They hence hold the potential to encompass massive environmental destruction because of its value for earthlings’ survival.

Widespread or systematic: Under the Rome Statute, any natural person, be a state official, a member of an armed group, or a civilian, may be prosecuted for CAH where his or her action is sufficiently connected to a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population with the knowledge of the attack. The ‘widespread’ criterion mostly refers to a quantitative threshold, referring to the scale of the attack or, equivalently, to the substantial number of victims. In the context of environmental destruction, one could consider ‘widespread’ the act of dropping a considerable amount of hazardous waste on a residential area. The ‘systematic’ requirement, on the other hand, refers to the nature of an act of violence. As such it should imply a certain degree of organization and planning. The violation of individual rights should follow a pattern and involve the repetition of similar criminal conduct on a regular basis. This provision could, for example, encompass the constant dropping of untreated and unfiltered petroleum waste in the natural environment surrounding oil exploitations, considering their dramatic effects on human health.

Policy of a State or a Corporation: the attack should be committed ‘pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack’; a consensus seems to emerge from literature and ICC’s jurisprudence (ICTY, Tadic case, para. 131) that under this formulation, any organized group of people with a particular purpose, such as a government department or even a corporation could qualify, hence recognizing that the purpose and motivation of such actors for capital and profit may be of a corruptive and tempting influence. When such deviance occurs, corporations contain a structure of authority, legitimized by the law, to facilitate the perpetration of crimes. For this matter, some authors have suggested that it might be possible to prosecute the corporation’s CEO or other high-ranking officers for their decision(s) in the management of the firm (the ongoing investigations on Colombia could be interesting in that matter as the file includes examinations of the corporate Chiquita for CAH alleges). Others have theorized that corporate officers could be held as accomplices in some form, be by the ‘aiding and abetting’ provision of Article 25(3)(c) of the ICC Statute; joint criminal enterprise or co-perpetration of Article 25(3)(d); or superior responsibility for crimes committed by their subordinates of Article 28(b). Those options all hold the potential to overcome the ‘corporation excuse’, according to which the fact that the corporate nature of the author could prevent any prosecution before the ICC. 

Intent: The final contextual element relates to the intention of the author. Some may argue that most of the time, environmental destruction is not committed for the purpose of harm and is rather profit-driven. Nonetheless, these motives do not prevent compliance with the mental requirement enshrined in Articles 30 and 7 of the ICC Statute. Indeed, it has been long established that the motives that inspired the perpetrator to take part in the attack are of little significance. The perpetrator’s knowledge that its actions amount to CAH does not matter either. However, the awareness that its act will, in the ordinary course of events, have as a consequence massive destruction of the environment and thereby a disastrous impact on the local population, is crucial. Therefore, ‘it is enough that the accused was aware of the environmental destruction’ to consider the intent requirement to be fulfilled

  1. Limitations

Antropocentrism: The Rome Statute approach only evaluates environmental damages for their impact on humans, as such, it provides for an anthropocentric and somehow limited approach to environmental destruction. Yet, it does not mean that non-human environmental entities (i.e. ‘natural objects’ such as rivers, mountains oceans, or what comes under the definition of fauna and flora) may not be defended. Nonetheless, they will never be for their intrinsic value. Ecocentric considerations are non-receivable before the ICC. Which means that, for example, the destruction of the Amazon forest in Brazil may never be considered as a CAH as such, rather, it may be for its instrumental or utilitarian value for mankind (shelter, source of food, medicine, clean air, …). 

Foreseeability: The mandate of the current ICC prosecutor (and author of the 2016 Policy Paper), Fatou Bensouda, will end on 15 June 2021. As of March 2021, no investigations or prosecutions in which environmental damage or illegal natural resources were regarded to be aggravating circumstances in the case selection and investigation criterion. It remains to be seen whether the new prosecutor, Karim Khan, will pursue similar policy guidance on case selection and prioritization.

  1. A call for pragmatism 

While limited to some extent, protecting earthlings from mass environmental destruction under Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute is feasible and should not be overlooked. CAH, as known for their grave character of their prosecution tend to shine the spotlight on events that otherwise would be undermined or ignored before national courts. As such, the prosecution of few but massive environmental destructions may set an example and contribute to the fight against impunity. 

Considering the urgency of the present situation, no means of defense of the environment should be neglected. Especially those whose symbolism is likely to inspire the international community to more sustainable practices. To paraphrase the Irish author and philosopher Edmund Burke, more than ever, nobody will make a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he can only do a little.