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A law against ecocide

Council of Europe Assembly adopts resolution to codify ecocide in national & international law
Glacial rivers of Iceland, captured from a helicopter

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has voted overwhelmingly to adopt resolution 2477 and recommendation 2246, both calling for recognition of ecocide.

The decision was based on a recently issued report from its Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development on the environmental impact of armed conflicts.

The adopted resolution (Resolution 2477) states: ‘Severe destruction or deterioration of nature that could be qualified as ecocide may occur in times of peace or war. It is necessary to codify this notion…’

Human rights to life

Submitted by rapporteur John Howell (UK, European Conservatives), the report sets out that ‘multifaceted, severe, long-lasting and mostly irreversible’ environmental damages caused in armed conflicts affect ‘not only ecosystems but also human health beyond the conflict area and long after the conflict is over. The human rights to life and to a healthy environment are thus undermined.’

The resolution calls for member states of the Council to ‘build and consolidate a legal framework for the enhanced protection of the environment in armed conflicts at national, European and international levels’ by, inter alia, ‘updating their legal arsenal to criminalise and effectively prosecute ecocide and taking concrete steps to amend the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in order to add ecocide as a new crime.’

Ukraine conflict and beyond

The immediate context for the resolution is clear: Ukraine has suffered high levels of environmental damage in many forms over the last year due to Russian attacks, from ‘massive forest fires’ to ‘agricultural fields contaminated by gasoline, and rivers where fish have suffocated under oil slicks’ (reported in Time, 18/10/22). 

A UNEP report ‘shows that Ukraine, already burdened by a host of legacy environmental challenges, is now facing a compounded, multi-dimensional environmental crisis that has either exacerbated existing issues or added new ones […] associated with chemicals, munitions and military equipment, the presence of a range of pollutants continuing to be released during the active phase of the conflict, damage inflicted to fuel storage facilities, industrial infrastructure, key infrastructure such as water, energy and waste management systems, urban areas, agricultural and natural areas. Assessing such damage will require a multitude of complex methods to establish the impacts and plan recovery activities.’ (The Environmental Impact of the Conflict in Ukraine: A Preliminary Review, UNEP October 2022.)

The Council of Europe resolution highlights ‘important gaps [that] subsist in protecting the environment in the context of armed conflicts and their aftermath. The existing legal instruments lack universality in terms of ratifications, precision of terms used (such as for qualifying ‘widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects’), a comprehensive coverage of offences and a sufficiently broad scope of application. Moreover, a permanent international mechanism to monitor legal infringements and address compensation claims for environmental damage is also missing.’

‘Nature is always a silent witness and victim of this war.’

MP, Ukraine

Ecocide: a criminal offence?

The resolution sets out Assembly support for the codification of ecocide as a criminal offence at national and international levels: ‘Severe destruction or deterioration of nature that could be qualified as ecocide may occur in times of peace or war. It is necessary to codify this notion in both national legislation, as appropriate, and international law.’

The resolution was passionately supported from the floor by a number of parliamentarians of all political persuasions, including Ukrainian MP Yuliia Ovchynnykova who referred to the Council of Europe’s role as ‘guardian of human rights and rule of law in times of peace and war.’

Rapporteur John Howell explained that the report also addresses issues relevant more broadly, not just in the Ukraine context, and other speakers highlighted instances of the extremely long-lasting environmental impacts of war elsewhere, from the still-felt results of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam in the 1960s (to which the original coining of the word ‘ecocide’ referred) to the pollution from uranium in southern Iraq following gulf war of 1991.  

Resolution and recommendations

The resolution was passed with no objections.  

The associated recommendation to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, included the following calls:

‘[To] ensure that the revised Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Environment through Criminal Law (ETS No. 172) applies also in the context of armed conflicts, wartime or occupation, and covers ecocide’; ‘[To] call on member States to update their legal arsenal to criminalise and effectively prosecute ecocide […] and to take concrete steps to propose amendment of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in order to add ecocide as a new crime’.

This recommendation was also passed with no objections.

It is to be expected that this result will have a galvanising effect on continuing discussions in the EU on the revision of the Directive on protection of the environment through criminal law.

Also of note is the recent adoption by the Council of the European Law Institute (ELI) of a model law on ecocide, drafted for the EU context.  The model law will be voted on by wider ELI membership in February.

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